Sports fans are a lot like fashonistas. They’re always looking for an excuse to buy new clothing. Fans of the Cleveland Indians now have one. Or at least they will, in 2019, when the franchise changes its uniforms and removes its controversial logo, the cartoonish Native American caricature Chief Wahoo. For decades, critics have asked – no, demanded the mascot be removed. And now it will be, with a few caveats. First, it won’t make the change until a season from now, allowing Chief Wahoo fans another year to enjoy what many consider a racist symbol. There’s probably some logical reasons for the delayed alteration, namely they need to come up with an alternative. And they probably want fan feedback, or at least the perception thereof. So there are business explanations for slowly removing the Band-Aid instead of ripping it off.
Chief Wahoo is one of several remaining Native American team names or logos that each season resists considerable pressure to move into at least the 20th century. A lot of those were collegiate programs, if for no other reason that there are whole lot more colleges and universities than pro teams. Many, if not most of those have changed course. Like the Marquette Golden Eagles, formerly the Warriors. Or the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, who were previously the Fighting Sioux. Siena went from Indians to Saints, and the University of Illinois retired their human mascot Chief Illiniwek, ritual pre-game dance and all. A select few universities have resisted, through NCAA appeal and what they proclaim a positive relationship with neighboring tribes. Those include the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas. Of course, universities have different mission statements than professional sports teams. Or at least they’re supposed to.
It should be noted that while Chief Wahoo may be gone from the field of play, he won’t be forgotten. In fact, the Indians will still sell Chief Wahoo branded items – including inside the stadium – and retains rights to its use and likeness. You won’t be able to buy them on mlb.com, but that shouldn’t keep die-hard Chief Wahoo fans from showing their enthusiasm. I’m guessing that as time evolves, lines may well be drawn between supporters of the old logo and the new one, whatever that is.
Which, of course, leads us to the far more prominent professional sports franchise at the core of this issue, the Washington Redskins. Or, as some call it, the NFL franchise from Washington. Cleveland’s change has put more eyes and pressure on the team to change its name from one considered highly offensive and, as described frequently, textbook racism. This pressure isn’t anything new, but as the team slowly becomes the last man standing, it will take even greater fortitude to resist doing what can liberally be described as the most basic of human compassion.
Now, the reason the Indians banished, or at least moved Chief Wahoo was pressure from baseball league commissioner Rob Manfred, who has been a vocal advocate for inclusion and diversity. And let’s be honest, in a sport that increasingly has an aging white male fan base, inclusion isn’t simply social good – it’s an existential strategy. It is not likely that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will exert similar influence on Washington owner Rob Snyder, who could make Stephen Miller seem open minded. We know that because a) Goodell said as much, and b) he’s had ample opportunity before and hasn’t done anything. And the Indians’ shift aside, nothing much has changed, other than the Supreme Court actually making it harder to remove an offensive trademark.
So it’s pointless to debate whether Washington should change their name and logo. By all reasonable standards, they should, and should have a long time ago. And it doesn’t matter how many polls they conduct to try and validate a false narrative of pride not prejudice. This won’t happen because of what’s right and what’s wrong, not in a league that’s trying to maintain a myth of its own safety. This will happen when, or if it’s a fiscal imperative. Right now, the NFL is trying its best to avoid culture wars in maintaining its place as America’s sport. That’s become increasingly difficult as the nation itself fractures along its seams – racial and otherwise. We’ve seen just how challenged the NFL was by protests of the National Anthem, a referendum on race and social justice, yet perceived as a slight on America. So just know that the last thing the NFL and Roger Goodell want now is to fuel an economic implosion through a referendum on the use of racist team names – particularly when the public hasn’t demanded it, which speaks to the unfortunate political capital of Native Americans.
There’s a lot more to unpack here, all of which can be discussed at a later date. Which is fine, because while fan apparel may change, Washington’s team name, unfortunately, will not.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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