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Injuries: A Mascot's Pet Peeve

A mascot's life isn't all fun and games

THURSDAY, May 31, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- One broke a thumb getting tackled during a football game; another tore his Achilles tendon during a slam dunk competition; a third suffered a concussion from a bat while standing near the on-deck circle.

Being a mascot can be brutal.

A new survey of 48 professional basketball, baseball and football mascots shows that on-the-job injuries come with the costume.

Mascots reported 179 injuries, half involving the lower body, says the survey by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Knee injuries, the most frequent orthopedic complaints, accounted for 17 percent of injuries. Next came wounds of the hands, wrists or fingers, at 14 percent, followed by ankle problems, at 13 percent. Ankle sprains were the most common acute injuries, at 11 percent of the total.

Mascots also complained of head and neck injuries, back trouble and chest and rib pain. Twenty-two injuries, or 12 percent, of orthopedic problems required surgery.

Overall, heat-related maladies were the most common complaint, with nearly 60 percent of mascots saying they've suffered heat-related illness during an appearance. Of those, half needed IV fluids, and one severe case required hospitalization.

That mascots feel the heat isn't surprising, considering they wear costumes weighing an average of about 21 pounds, says Dr. Edward McFarland, the Johns Hopkins orthopedic surgeon who presented the findings Wednesday at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

McFarland says the survey sounds a "cautionary note" to mascots for high schools and collegiate athletic programs "They should probably make sure that they have good aeration in their costumes, adequate fluids and that they can recognize the signs of heat exhaustion," McFarland says. Schools also should encourage their suited mascots to work less on hot days, he says.

While the range of injuries and their severity was broad, mascoteering is a relatively painless job, with the average injury rate for the three sports running slightly safer than college baseball. However, pro basketball mascots suffered 4.9 injuries per 1,000 appearances, nearly as many as a male college gymnast.

The typical mascot was a 29-year-old male who worked 17 hours a week, 43 weeks a year, plus charity appearances, school events and other off-season appearances at which injuries can, and do, occur. "Some of the injuries were due to fans or players whupping up on the mascot," McFarland says.

Ted Giannoulas, the man behind (or inside) the San Diego Chicken, says he's been winged twice in the 27 years he's worn the famous feathered costume.

Once, he separated a shoulder during a pratfall; another time, he broke a foot during a tumble down stairs in a St. Louis ice arena. "I was doing a dance while the organist was playing Zorba the Greek. I missed a step and tumbled all the way down," Giannoulas says.

As a self-proclaimed "free agent chicken," Giannoulas is on the road roughly 200 days a year, appearing at everything from Major League Baseball games to discotheque parties. And he says the gigs seem longer when the weather gets hotter.

The chicken suit weighs just seven pounds, less than many full-body costumes, Giannoulas says, but not light enough to keep the heat down. "I do sweat quite profusely, but it's become very second nature," says Giannoulas, who credits his endurance to growing up in Canada as a hockey goalie.

Visibility, or the lack of it, is another problem for mascots. The San Diego Chicken suit has eye slits in its beak, and it's hardly a panoramic view. Some injuries "could be due to some depth perception [problems] and biting off a little more than they can chew" in their antics, the Chicken says.

Kenny Glenn, former director of game operations for the Phoenix Suns, says the mascot business has become markedly more bruising since the advent in the late '80s of more gymnastic characters, like his brainchild, the Suns Gorilla.

Besides introducing a trampoline into his act, the gorilla sometimes rappels from the ceiling of the America West Arena, resulting in two separated shoulders, stitches in the head and assorted bone spurs, says Glenn, who now runs Game Operations International, a Phoenix company that manages sporting events nationwide.

"Prior to the gorilla, mascots had more of a comedic value. Now they're much more physical. The gorilla really did bring about a revolution" in mascot entertainment. "With all the tumbling, it wears on their body. The gorilla will end up being like an offensive lineman," Glenn says.

Glenn says mascots generally know the dangers they face on the court or field. The professional jesters, particularly those who work basketball games, are well compensated, with salaries starting around $40,000 a year and heading north of six figures, he says.

But the teams may not be doing as much as possible to minimize the risk of harm. "Teams aren't aware of it until it happens. There's nothing done preventatively, and there should be," says Glenn, who suggests knee and ankle braces and larger safety mats for starters.

Costume makers also can help reduce the dangers, especially overheating. Peter DeVita, managing director of marketing and design for Sugar's, a Toronto, Canada, firm that makes mascot uniforms, recalls having costumes returned from mascots in Texas because the oppressive heat there melted the glue holding them together.

Sugar's tries to give its characters large eyes to improve airflow, and "we also exhaust the hot air from the top of the head," says DeVita. The company also markets a cooling vest, which it sells to the U.S. Army, Disney and other buyers.

Another area of concern is footing, DeVita says. "So many companies will pay little attention to balance, but that's first and foremost for us. If a character's not balanced, it can cause neck injuries."

What To Do

To find out more about mascots, check the MascotSpot or MascotNet.

For more on sports medicine, check Johns Hopkins University or the American College of Sports Medicine.

Or, read previous HealthDay sports stories.

SOURCES: Interviews with Edward McFarland, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery, director of sports medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Ted Giannoulas, a.k.a. The Famous San Diego Chicken; Kenny Glenn, founder, Game Operations International, Phoenix, Ariz.; Peter DeVita, director of marketing and design, Sugar's Mascot Design & Manufacturing, Toronto, Canada; May 30, 2001, American College of Sports Medicine meeting abstract
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