The San Antonio Scorpions’ mascot doesn’t just want you to cheer for soccer. He subversively wants you to contemplate war, capitalism, and globalization.
The world’s first mascot appeared, not on the grass of the American sports stadium, but on the stages of fin-de-siècle Paris. Edmond Audran’s “La Mascotte” first appeared on December 29th, 1880 at La Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in the 2nd Arrondissement of Paris. The opera tells the story of Bettina, a farm-girl who is taken away from her home and her lover to live in the Italian court. She is a charm, a bringer of luck, a “hearth-angel” as they call her.
Part of the opera’s conflict emerges from the stark contrast between the idyllic pastoral and the crassness of court society. The word mascot refers not simply to her charmed nature. Rather, it is a double-edged word that simultaneously connotes virginal luck-bringing as it also refers to its Provençale origin meaning “witch.” Bettina brings good luck, but also leaves curses in her wake as when Prince Laurent loses possession of her and is usurped from the throne. “La Mascotte” embodies these disparate elements — possession, war, the pastoral, the virginal — in the figure of Bettina.
How far the mascot has come to its contemporary Styrofoam fluff on the sides of soccer and football pitches around the world. Does Gunnersaurus have virginal luck, I wonder? Surely, Berni, Bayern Munich’s bear mascot has cast some sort of spell.
The mascot has become a cartoonish and garish thing — a silly marketing tool for kids. My beloved Minnesota United FC, the Loons, recently unveiled their own mascot, P.K. Loon. Though he sounds like he might invoke the spirit of the great St. Paul, Minnesota novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, he does little more than running around high-fiving fans.
There is one soccer mascot, though, who harkens back to Bettina. More than any other mascot, he cuts through the commercialized confetti of modern soccer. I have thought about this mascot quite often since I saw his bizarre and haunting birth less than a year ago. If Bettina’s duality contained the virginal and evil, this mascot speaks to the pure joy and crass commercialization of contemporary soccer.
At the beginning of the 2014 North American Soccer League season, the San Antonio Scorpions unveiled a subversive mascot who — at the very core of his being — presents a critique of capitalism and the military industrial complex. Sting the Scorpion forces the contemporary spectator to recognize the existential angst at the center of contemporary soccer.
Perhaps you think this is a joke. Perhaps you think I over-exaggerate Sting’s existential qualities. But consider the video of Sting’s birth, a seven minute and forty-one second recording that is hauntingly silent.
For weeks, the team had been teasing fans with seemingly cartoonish promotions for the game. The team, these promotions said, had discovered a giant egg in the center of their pitch at Toyota Field. One advertisement had Scorpions President Howard Cornfield riding the egg like a cowboy, telling fans to see what would hatch at halftime of the home opener.
The seven minute and forty-one second video captures the hatching. It is entirely silent as eight camouflaged soldiers slowly march alongside an enormous military truck that drives onto the pitch toward the center circle. When the truck draws to a halt, the soldiers carry a be-speckled egg in the shape of a rocket from its bed and onto the pitch.
Two minutes into the video, a hand finally shatters the shell and gives a rapid wave. Moments later, what emerges is hard to describe as anything other than a smiling, Mr. T lookalike turd. The Mohawked mascot carries echoes of the 1980s military culture embodied in Mr. T.’s seminal role as B.A. Baracus in The A-Team, a television show that reflected the military excesses of the era of Oliver North and Iran-Contra. But most certainly, it is a turd. Its brown, lumpy tail arches upward in an undeniable mimesis of human feces. And it is the mascot’s smile plastered on such a turd that is so alarming and unsettling.
Sting draws us into the violence by which our World Cup is being constructed in Qatar or the echoes of colonialism by which this sport was spread throughout the world.
The military escort, the egg-rocket from which he has hatched, and the name, “Sting,” which invokes the terrifying surface-to-air missile that has become a hallmark of the War on Terror: all of these force the spectator to consider their own position within globalism. Soccer, or more precisely, “futbol,” is the global sport. More recently, it has become the globalized sport. Sting turns that globalism on its head and directs the spectator toward the deeply interwoven connections between the military-industrial complex, capitalism, and twenty-two men kicking around a ball. He draws us into the violence by which our World Cup is being constructed in Qatar or the echoes of colonialism by which this sport was spread throughout the world.
Sting then introduces himself through a series of cultural clichés that rehearse capitalism’s history in the twentieth century. He begins with the cross-knee routine of the early twentieth-century dance, the Charleston before transitioning to a 1980s Michael Jackson kick-and-crotch-grab routine. He Moonwalks and does the 1970s “Stayin’ Alive” disco move before running to the sidelines to grab a Fender Stratocaster.
Arena-rock guitar in-hand, Sting continues his journey through the clichéd movements that spectators could all perform in their sleep. When he has finished with rock-and-roll, Sting becomes more pointed, throwing the crass consumer goods — t-shirts and soccer balls — at his crowd as if to say, “junk, it’s all junk!”
Every once in awhile the camera cuts to the audience whose silence in the video speaks to the deafening nihilism of the entire routine. They vigorously wave their hands, begging for Sting to throw them a shirt, but their voices are lost. He raises a sandwich board that implores the audience. “MAKE NOISE,” it says and Sting will give them a mocking hand-to-ear gesture. “I can’t hear you,” he seems to say, drawing the video’s spectator to the dramatic irony that there is nothing to be heard. It screams with deafened futility.
By minute five, Sting has jumped onto the back of an all-terrain vehicle and rides along the edges of the pitch taunting the audience. He drives by the corporate-branded H.E.B. corner, past the Miller Lite beer garden. When the lap is complete, he runs away from the camera, back to the center circle of his birth. The video goes to black, but in the center circle he joins a donut-eating contest, the final indictment of the gluttonous consumer culture that birthed him.
In Audran’s La Mascotte, Bettina gets whisked away from her lover, Pippo, to join the Italian court. The constraints of courtly life make her long for her freedom and her lover, whose shepherd life embodies that freedom. By the final act, Pippo has joined the army and fought in a war. He arrives with his friends, disfigured by the war, and he and Bettina are finally joined together in marriage.
The tradition of the mascot, then, is not only the bringer-of-luck. Rather, Bettina and Sting remind us of the costs of bridling the virginal exuberance of our freedom. Soccer’s global explosion has brought the joyful sport of our youth into the crassness of commercial life. Sting draws us to the central paradox of our fandom: that the price we must pay for soccer’s growth is its exploitation. We are left with a turd that smiles back at us and taunts us. “I can’t hear you,” it says.
Wes Burdine lives in Minneapolis, MN, and co-hosts the du Nord Futbol Show. He tweets under the handle @MnNiceFC