October 6, 2016. The game would start in just a few minutes. I looked down on the field and saw my dad standing near the corner of the dugout. It was a big game by any standard, but this one had some extra history as well. My dad was in his fourth season as the manager of the Cleveland Indians. They were facing the Boston Red Sox, the team he previously managed to two World Series titles.
Boston would always be a special place. It’s hard to top the thrill of winning a championship with an iconic franchise like the Red Sox. But Cleveland was his baseball home, the place he belonged. He played for the team briefly in 1988, but our family history with the team started nearly four decades earlier when his father, an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, joined the team in a trade for the legendary Larry Doby, the first Black player in the American League.
My grandpa emerged from the dugout and walked slowly towards the mound where he would throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He wore a Cleveland Indians cap and jersey that hung loosely on his frame. At 82 years old he didn’t move like he once did and my dad was by his side to help him along. His pitch bounced about 10 feet short, but it didn’t matter. The fans roared and he raised his arms triumphantly, embracing my dad near the mound. It was the happiest I could ever recall seeing either of them and a moment I will never forget.
Our ties to the team and Cleveland run deep. It’s an important part of my family’s history. But now amidst a broader cultural reckoning that has consumed our country following the protests against police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the controversy over the use of Native American names and logos by sports teams has once again received national attention. This time around, the debate is taking place in an environment of heightened awareness of issues of systemic racism and social injustice.
Cleveland tried to finally put to rest the decades-long controversy over use the team’s Chief Wahoo logo by removing it from on-field use following the 2018 season. At the time, owner Paul Dolan told The Plain Dealer that the team was “adamant about keeping the name Indians.”
But earlier this month, the team reversed course, announcing that it was considering the “best path forward with regard to our team name.” The sudden change of heart came as pressure mounted on Washington’s NFL team and its owner, Daniel Snyder, from business partners and sponsors to drop the team’s controversial name.
Between the Washington football team announcing earlier this week that it would indeed find a new name and prominent members of the Cleveland Indians embracing the idea for their own team, a name change appears to be all but inevitable, with media and fans already speculating about a potential new identity. But the way the team approaches this process is just as important as the decision itself. Quietly doing away with the name is the easy way out.
In announcing the possibility of a name change, the team declared a commitment to “embrace our responsibility to advance social justice and equality.” Living up to that commitment will require the organization to honestly reckon with its past in a way that it has thus far been unwilling to do. This will be no easy task, made even more challenging as this issue has become increasingly politicized: President Trump even weighed in to denounce potential name changes as a concession to “political correctness,” making the issue a microcosm of what he has called a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”
Teams have typically approached this issue with a cynical and myopic strategy designed to pacify the intermittent criticism and minimize the impact to their business. They speak about their fans’ connection to a team’s identity using words like tradition, heritage, and pride. They insist it is all done to honor Native Americans, not to disparage or stereotype them. Some have created origin myths of dubious veracity to support their narrative. They often trot out Native Americans, genuine and otherwise, to defend their branding by saying they don’t find it offensive. On occasion, they might acknowledge the criticism and offer statements laden with corporate jargon about how they are “sensitive to concerns” and intend to “engage with stakeholders.” Of course, the entire charade is designed to avoid having to address the actual criticism for long enough so that the attention and pressure fade away and the team can carry on with business as usual.
Of course, the entire charade is designed to avoid having to address the actual criticism for long enough so that the attention and pressure fade away and the team can carry on with business as usual.
With that framework in place, it isn’t surprising that the issue becomes bitterly divisive. Many fans bristle at the implication that these familiar symbols of their beloved team are racist and problematic. Paul Chaat Smith, a curator at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, explained the dynamic well, telling Smithsonian Magazine, “The bonds between a city and its sports team are really deep and profound. When I see sports fans defend their mascot—even [an] obviously racist caricature like Chief Wahoo—what they're really defending is their generations of commitment to that city, to that team, their family, their friends.”
Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise has been known as the Indians since the 1915 season. The source of this name has been the subject of much debate, with the team arguing that that it was inspired by a former player, Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe who dazzled in his first months with the team in 1897 before quickly deteriorating and being released by 1899. Many have dismissed this narrative as a post-hoc creation, pointing out that there was little contemporaneous discussion of Sockalexis as the inspiration for the name and noting that he was routinely the target of bigotry from fans and writers covering the team.
The team adopted the controversial logo that became known as Chief Wahoo in the 1940’s after using numerous variations of “Indian head” logos beginning in 1928. The cartoonish, grinning caricature underwent a few modifications, and by 1951 it evolved into the design familiar to generations of baseball fans. Many Cleveland fans will be reluctant to embrace a new identity for their team, particularly after seeing the Chief Wahoo logo maligned and ultimately phased out. The logo was popular amongst fans and remains a fixture around the city and a ubiquitous site at games. The team will undoubtedly face a backlash from fans who feel like the symbols of their youth are being taken away from them, unnecessary casualties in a culture war.
Such a reaction is understandable, and I share the nostalgic attachment of so many fans to the team and its symbols. As a kid, my bedroom was adorned with all types of baseball memorabilia, much of it from the Cleveland Indians. Many cherished family photos show my dad and grandfather in their Indians uniforms. Like many Cleveland fans, it didn’t occur to me that the logo or name was anything different than those for the Dodgers, Yankees, or any other baseball team.
But not seeing a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For decades, Native Americans have been pleading with the team to drop the name and logo. Studies have shown that the use of Native American names and mascots in sports can cause real harm, with links to depression, negative self-perception, and lower feelings of community worth amongst Native American youth. A consistent point raised by many of the Native Americans asking for change has been that reducing them to stereotypes and caricatures has resulted in them being invisible and perceived as an extinct relic of the past, complicating the ability to address the many serious contemporaneous issues facing Native American communities.
Far from being limited to a small group of “social justice warriors” as opponents of change often point out, hundreds of tribal governments and the National Congress of American Indians are amongst the countless organizations that have called for an end to the use of Native American mascots and team names. Ultimately, nostalgic feelings about baseball shouldn’t come at the expense of the dignity and well-being of others.
The team must confront the central hypocrisy that it has thus far been unwilling to address honestly: they know the logo is racist, but want to continue to profit off of it without openly admitting to it, as profiting off of racism tends to be frowned upon. While the Chief Wahoo logo was “retired” from on-field use, it continues to appear on a wide variety of products and merchandise, which the team has said is necessary to control the trademark. The team has tried to have it both ways, and it’s not surprising the team avoids discussing the issue openly. It’s difficult to explain why you think a logo is too racist for your team to wear during games but is perfectly acceptable on a toddler’s cap.
Rather than openly acknowledge the problem, the team chose to hide behind their fans’ attachment to the logo, making it appear that any changes were a result of outside pressure against their will. Predictably, this inspired a response of revanchism amongst a portion of the fan base, exemplified by the ugly scenes of fans cruelly taunting Native American protesters, or coming to games wearing redface and headdresses. The team was powerless to address even the most egregious incidents without exposing their own hypocrisy.
If the team hopes to address the issue with credibility, that needs to change. For starters, the team must commit to no longer profiting off of the Chief Wahoo logo. They should consider transferring ownership of the trademark to a group like Not Your Mascots, a non-profit that has raised awareness about the harmful effects to Native American children as a result of sports teams appropriating their names and symbols.
Navigating this moment will require moral leadership and will be uncomfortable. That means the team must take on the difficult task of standing up against the very problem it cultivated for decades rather than cowardly deflecting resentment and anger on people who simply want to be treated with dignity and respect. Taking ownership of the problem that it created and perpetuated will require a level of courage and candor that is rarely seen in corporate America. But it’s the least the team can do for people they ignored for far too long.
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Originally Appeared on GQ