Mascot Mania: If He Hollers, Let Him Go

Written By Sarah Gibson

While mascots are one of the more lighthearted features of professional sports, it would be naive to assume that they don’t have their own controversy that we must take upon ourselves to review critically. I’ll save a certain string of controversies that I’m sure you’re well aware of for a later date, because this week I want to talk about the University of Memphis and their tiger mascots. Yes, mascots with an s, as in plural. 

The University of Memphis has the traditional, guy-in-a-suit mascot, a tiger named Pouncer. Pouncer is fine. He’s cute. Maybe his expression is a little lifeless and he looks like he’s constantly in fear of something, but that’s not the worst mascot crime I’ve ever seen committed. No, today we’re talking about The University of Memphis’s other mascot: A live, 12 year old tiger named TOM III (Tiger-of-Memphis). 

I’ve done some research, so here’s what I can tell you about TOM. TOM is the third live tiger mascot that the University of Memphis has had. He lives in an $800,000 tiger habitat. None of the school’s funding goes to the care of the tiger. TOM is taken care of by a group called the “Tiger Guard,” and the location of his regular habitat is kept secret. 

So far, that sounds fine to me. It actually reminds me of the way that Point Park had its own live Bison mascot, which I would be a fan of bringing back in some capacity, but it follows the model a little too well. And by that I mean, just like Point Park once brought a live bison to parades and sports games, The University of Memphis brings TOM to games in a clear box on wheels, and rolls him out in front of crowds, shouting fans,plumes of smoke, cheerleading squads, blasts of loud music and . . . Do you see where I’m going?

Look, I’m not going to claim I’m a tiger expert, but I think there’s a big difference in having a live animal mascot, and having a live animal mascot that you bring to football games in a box. I also think there’s a difference between the University of Georgia’s (UGA) mascot, who is a bulldog While mascots such as tigers and bison have been raised in captivity, they are also not domesticated animals. Even if they’re used to human interaction, things can still go wrong, like when Bevo, the live steer mascot for the University of Texas at Austin, almost trampled UGA at the Sugar Bowl. 

Not only do I feel that the environment of a football game is not ideal for a tiger, but the whole thing is . . . tacky. Here’s a quote from a UMemphis website about TOM:

“…his presence presents constant opportunities to educate Tiger fans young and old through the preservation of one of the world’s most recognizable endangered species.”

Please tell, why do you need a tiger on the field at kickoff? Are you suggesting that Little Timmy has never seen a tiger before? What does Little Timmy have to learn? Is he learning that tigers exist? Has he never been to the zoo? What other education are you providing Little Timmy, outside of the presentation of an animal in a slightly modified version of the popemobile?

 I ask these questions in vain, because I know their main goals are not preservation or conservation—It’s for the show of it all. That “preservation” stuff is  a mere justification. And it’s a shame too, because I think live mascots are a wonderful idea. You sponsor a mascot at a sanctuary, or get funding for a proper private facility, and you allow students to visit there. Use the outings to do the teaching, and the animal has a consistent, appropriate environment. It’s safer for the tiger and the people, and at the end of the day, at least it’s sincere. 

I guess we won’t have to worry about that, since the university has halted all possible appearances of TOM for the current season due to Coronavirus regulations. In the end, I hope they see this as a step in the right direction.