Before long, Gritty’s persona had escaped his creators’ intentions. Left-wing activists made him a socialist meme and antifa hero: a blue-collar monster, reclaimed from its marketing creators, fighting on behalf of workers against the absurdities of capitalism.
Enav Emmanuel, a member of the group Philly Socialists, said the left had claimed Gritty much as the far right claimed a comic strip character, Pepe the Frog, who became a symbol of hate speech during the 2016 election.
But Emmanuel, who identifies as nonbinary, said that Gritty was less about trolling than levity and that many left-wing activists identified with the mascot’s cheerful, unkempt and maniacal demeanor. “It’s about loving people and reaching across borders,” they said. “But at the same time it can involve serious and dangerous things.”
By early October, Gritty and his left-wing fans were the subject of articles, including a Wall Street Journal editorial page writer’s vehement dispute of antifa’s claim over the mascot.
Is Gritty antifa? Does it matter?
Michael Goldman, a professor of sport management at the University of San Francisco, said Gritty’s life outside hockey seemed to be a symptom of the turbulent political climate. “Ideas are up for grabs,” he said. “People are going to draw on whatever symbols they can to reinforce their identities.”
And fans have long read their hopes and beliefs into fictional characters, as they’ve done with Bert and Ernie of “Sesame Street” for decades. “We’re at a time where it feels like people are grasping for leaders — not that Gritty is a leader, but what he could represent,” said Dan Rascher, also a professor of sport management at the University of San Francisco.
Unlike Nike’s decision to embrace Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who has led protests against racism and police brutality, the creation of Gritty had no political calculus, said Ms. Schwab, the Flyers executive. “He doesn’t really know his right from his left,” she said.