Amid Pittsburgh’s “Parrot-gate,” a brief history of sports mascots being used — and criticized — as political props

“It was in no way, shape or form a political endorsement of any kind,” a Pirates spokesman said.

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Following a brutal offseason, a bad regular season and continued questions about the team’s front office management, it maybe wasn’t the best time for the Pittsburgh Pirates to enable this photo opp:

The photo of Pirate Parrot, the team’s mascot, at a GOP dinner featuring Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, was tweeted out by a Washington Post reporter from the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Green Tree on Thursday.

Team President Frank Coonelly was also there to give a speech on behalf of Republican Rick Saccone, one of three candidates in Tuesday’s special election to replace disgraced former congressman Tim Murphy in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. (This according to the Post reporter’s tweet.)

As you might expect in 2018, and in the throes of a heated congressional race like this one, the image went over like a lead balloon with segments of the Pirates fanbase, many of whom questioned the team presence in such a partisan setting.

Others were less incensed — or less surprised.

The team quickly issued a statement, which read, in part:

“It was in no way, shape or form a political endorsement of any kind, as Frank (Coonelly) would be happy to give the same speech at a Democratic Committee event as well should he be asked.”

As for the Parrot, the team said it “often accompanies team officials when they make such presentations.”

But just how unusual is it for a sports mascot to find itself in such a predicament? Well, it’s not unheard of.

In 2014, the Denver Nuggets’ mascot Rocky made a surprise appearance at a GOP event, drawing a rebuke from the team’s management, the Denver Post reported.

In 2015, University of Iowa mascots Herky the Hawk and Cy the Cardinal appeared at GOP U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual Roast and Ride rally in Boone, Iowa, prompting the school to implement changes to its mascot appearance applications and to acknowledge the Roast and Ride appearance as a mistake.

And last year, Kennesaw State University’s Scrappy the Owl was criticized after leading a cross-campus march in support of five university cheerleaders who had kneeled during the national anthem before a football game.

The list goes on.

Of course, mascots themselves have become political issues — but in Pittsburgh?

Rob Ruck, a sports historian and professor with the University of Pittsburgh’s History Department, was aware of no similar controversies here in the past involving team mascots — that’s assuming you don’t include the Pirate Parrot’s obtaining of a controversial gun license in 2016.

He added, “Given how leery the Pirates and most sporting organizations are of getting involved with politics, I’m surprised [the team] did this […] but these are unusual times.”

Indeed.

As for whether it’s ethical for a team mascot to appear at a political event, Maggie Patterson, professor of journalism at Duquesne, said this: “If he goes out of costume, as himself, he has the right to do that. But in his costume, he becomes a representative of the team and that should remain non-partisan. The team should not be taking political positions.”

Of course, the Pirates say they aren’t, and others have pointed to the advocacy Steelers officials offered Democrat Hillary Clinton during her 2016 campaign for president.

“At no point in time were politics discussed as part of the presentation,” Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki said of Thursday’s GOP dinner in Green Tree. “It was 100 percent focused on Pirates baseball and the upcoming season. We would be happy to give the exact same presentation to a Democratic event if asked.”

Until then — and assuming that ever happens, Pirates fans will likely continue to grumble. Not that they’re not used to it by now.