Whenever a sports team dreams up an animal mascot stunt — in this case, a football club Down Under parading a lion onto the field — you can bet there’s an activist just waiting to pounce.
Even the casual football fan is familiar with the wealth of “military” terminology routinely used to describe the action on the field. The late comedian George Carlin had an entire routine comparing baseball to football in which he noted that the latter sport was played on a gridiron and filled with hitting, clipping, throwing bombs and attacking the other team’s forward line.
But to be politically correct, it seems that the combative nature of football must be confined to the sport itself. Although many teams embrace nicknames that suggest predators, rather than prey, contemporary sensibilities require a conscious disconnect between the purpose of the contest fans are paying to watch and the mayhem suggested by the nicknames themselves.
And if any promotional imagery involves a real-life creature representative of the name adorning the official jerseys, well, that idea needs to be quashed like an opposing ball carrier.
For example: An Australian Football League team, the Brisbane Lions, recently made noises about bringing a real lion onto the field at their Gabba stadium home field prior to a game. The lion would remain captive throughout, its presence serving to ramp up “fan support, engagement and involvement,” according to Greg Swann, Lions CEO, who added that the league was “supportive” of the idea.
However, from the reaction of animal rights advocates, you’d think the team planned to match the lion against a couple of Christians. Here’s a sampling:
- “It would be totally inappropriate and dangerous behaviour (sic),” Michael Kennedy, campaign director at Humane Society International, told the Guardian Australia newspaper. “I can’t imagine any zoo agreeing to loan a lion. HSI would certainly oppose this move.”
- “A lion does not belong on a football field,” said Jordan Lees, who posted a change.org online petition asking the Lions to drop the plan. “There are many alternative methods of entertainment the Lions may employ to attract more fans to the games. Perhaps winning more games would be a good place to start.”
- “I really hope that this is a PR stunt,” Michael Beatty, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told Guardian Australia. “If they are considering it in any form, we would do everything in our power to stop it. Unfortunately, at large events, there are always idiots who will throw something or try to take the lion on. There are too many variables. We have moved on from the days of the Roman arenas.”
Regarding that last comment, the Roman arena analogy is actually meaningful here. If you’ve never seen a cricket field, which is where they stage Aussie Rules football games, you might not realize how huge it is. The playing field at the Gabba (named after the Brisbane suburb of Woolloongabba), for example, is a massive oval measuring over 175 yards long and 150 yards wide.
Point being, there’s little chance of a lion brought into the center of a field that size being able to leap into the stands, or for fans to reach him with a projectile. Heck, the lion would probably feel as if the only thing different from his native habitat is the length of the grass.
That, and the fact that a zoo isn’t likely to lend the football club a herd of antelope on the side, which would provide a real spectator sport — especially for the lion.
Despite the outcries, club officials were said to be discussing possibilities with the Australian Zoo — founded by the late Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin — to see if it might be possible to secure a lion for pre-match entertainment.
Meanwhile, Steele Tallon, the club’s communications chief, took to Twitter to say that, “In relation to animal rights, we would never do anything to harm a lion. Australia Zoo is one of our partners and match day sponsor this year.”
(Wait a second — that guy’s name is “Steele Tallon?” Are you kidding me? That is awesome. I mean, it feels totally fabricated, but so what? It’s like Mark Vincent changing his name to Vin Diesel. It rocks!)
Is it the animals, or the people?
Finally, there is a sub-plot running through this story worth mentioning.
Predictably, animal welfare groups always react negatively to the idea of parading an animal anywhere, no matter the venue. Remember the “outrage” PETA tried to stir up when the London Olympics opening ceremony organizers used farm animals in one of the skits? Such tactics are nothing more than a line extension, like a cereal maker marketing a bunch of new flavors to capitalize on its existing brand equity.
The idea is to make any animal activity a stand-in for the exploitation activists try to convince consumers is endemic on farms and feedlots.
The overreaction is always selective, however. In the case of the Australian Football League, the teams are heavy on animal names, including Eagles, Hawks, Crows, Magpies, Swans, Bulldogs and Kangaroos. Would RSPCA or PETA try to gin up a protest if any of those animals were brought into the stadium prior to kickoff? With the exception of bulldogs, they’re all wild animals, just like lions. But I doubt if the “doesn’t belong on a football field” complaint would register with fans if we’re talking about swans, crows and magpies.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine that a flock of swans or magpies could fire up even the most rabid fan base.
Which suggests that what irritates activists isn’t the exploitation of the animals on the field, as much as the effect they have on the people in the stands.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.