Well, what is a Bengal tiger?
The scientific name of the cat is Panthera tigris tigris, and people also know it as the “Royal Bengal tiger.” The animal lives primarily in India, but Bengal tigers also inhabit countries to the north and east. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates that there are fewer than 2,500 Bengal tigers left in the wild; poaching and climate change threaten the survival of the species. The foundation states the cats can grow ten feet long and weigh 550 pounds. The tiger is named for Bengal, a region in northeast India, whose denizens speak Bengali.
Now, how did this tiger become associated with US athletics? Let’s look at the largest sports organization that bears its name: the Cincinnati Bengals.
It’s easy to figure out why the NFL franchise selected the Bengals as its moniker. They are actually the second team in the Queen City to use the name “Bengals.” The first Bengals entered the world of sports in 1937, under the ownership of Queen City Athletics, Ltd. It was the team’s first coach and general manager, Hal Pennington, who came up with the name for the franchise. According to a 2008 article from Cincinnati.com, this is the story Pennington would give:
“I was in my mom’s kitchen one day,” he told a reporter in 1967, “and on their stove there was a picture of this tiger with the name Bengal above it. I guess it was a trademark or something. Anyway, the tiger in the picture was so animated it inspired me. I figured Bengals would be a good name for the team.”
The team lasted for five seasons, surviving a few league collapses but ultimately folding because of America’s entrance into the Second World War.
In 1967, Paul Brown acquired the expansion rights to a new franchise in Cincinnati and wanted to give his squad “a link with past professional football in Cincinnati.”
(We won’t look into why he never chose, from previous Cincinnati teams, the Celts, Reds, Models, or Blades.)
So, there you have it. In 2014, there is a professional football team that is named after an antique stove. Here’s a picture of one of them; I couldn’t find of any with a tiger emblem.
But America’s love affair with the Bengal goes back further and we’ll need to go to college to learn more about this. There are three universities who have gone above and beyond to show their devotion to this particular cat: Princeton, LSU, and Memphis.
Princeton University has been associated with the tiger since 1880. When the school started to identify specifically with the Bengal tiger remains a mystery. Penn State suggests Princeton’s connection with the Bengal tiger dates back to at least 1907, when at a game in Princeton, the baseball “team were shown a statue of Princeton’s famous Bengal tiger as an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field.” In 1923, a father of one of the football players sent the university a Bengal tiger cub after a hunting expedition in India.
When a Princeton graduate took over Idaho State University athletics in 1921, he gave his teams the “Bengals” name.
Louisiana State University has had a live Bengal tiger mascot ever since 1936. The current iteration is Mike VI. LSU adopted the “Tigers” nickname in 1896 to commemorate a Confederate volunteer company. Louisiana State isn’t the only school along the Mississippi River with a live Bengal. Beginning in 1972, the University of Memphis has kept one as well.
Two more southeastern schools have also thrown their support behind the breed. The University of Missouri’s mascot, Truman, is a Bengal tiger. When developing its paw print logo, Clemson University used a Bengal tiger’s foot, but it is unknown why the Field Museum chose this particular subspecies.
Lastly, there is a Detroit Tigers blog called Motor City Bengals.
Yes, Bengal tigers are ferocious beasts, but they aren’t the largest subspecies of tiger. The largest is the Siberian tiger, which is also known as the Amur tiger. There are also Indochinese (Corbett’s), Malayan, South-China, and Sumatran tigers, as well as the extinct Caspian, Javan, and Bali tigers. So why isn’t the NFL franchise the Cincinnati Siberians? What makes the Bengal tiger so special to all these athletic departments?
No other tiger has a rolodex as great as the Bengal’s and there is no specified reason why Western cultures are attached to these creatures. One hunch is that it has to do with the British exploits in India. Maybe the most famous depiction of a tiger at the time was Shere Khan, the antagonist from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 work Jungle Book.
The Bengal tiger and US athletics have been intertwined for more than one hundred years. The Cincinnati NFL franchise has a peculiar backstory to its nickname. Collegiate affiliations with the cat are more mysterious. And for some reason, the Bengal trumps other tiger subspecies with its appearances in American sports.