There has been a great disturbance in the force. After more than 60 years as a mascot for MLB’s Cleveland Indians, the red-faced Chief Wahoo will no longer appear on game jerseys and caps starting in the 2019 season.
That’s a pretty big deal. Although the decision doesn’t extend to merchandise and trademark ownership, it may indicate the years-long resistance to phasing out racially offensive mascots is weakening.
A new wave of anti-mascot pressure would be especially challenging for, say, the Washington Redskins, who along with the Indians are the most visible sports teams that profit from controversial Native American imagery.
Next up: The Redskins?
Every few years, the Washington Redskins face a new wave of petitions and court cases aimed at changing the franchise’s name and its primary logo – a burgundy-colored Native American in profile.
The team got some reassurance in June 2017 when the Supreme Court ruled that restricting trademarks on “disparaging” nicknames was a violation of the First Amendment. The ruling defused a long-running legal argument that the offensiveness of the nickname “Redskins” violated federal trademark law.
Now the Chief Wahoo news has thrust the Redskins back into the spotlight. Within mere minutes of MLB’s announcements, voices from the sports world and beyond were sounding the inevitable question: What about Washington?
In fact, a statement from the “Change the Mascot” campaign wasted no time, praising the Cleveland Indians in one breath and calling the Washington Redskins to the floor in the next:
Cleveland’s decision should finally compel the Washington football team to make the same honorable decision. For too long, people of color have been stereotyped with these kinds of hurtful symbols – and no symbol is more hurtful than the football team in the nation’s capital using a dictionary-defined racial slur as its team name. Washington Owner Dan Snyder needs to look at Cleveland’s move and then look in the mirror and ask whether he wants to be forever known as the most famous purveyor of bigotry in modern sports, or if he wants to finally stand on the right side of history and change his team’s name. We hope he chooses the latter.
Snyder has said he will “never” change the team’s name, citing tradition and a poll showing most Native Americans don’t find it offensive.
What would it take?
While it would be nice to think a wave of wokeness is spreading over the sports land and all offensive mascots will soon be banished to the clearance section of the team store, it’s more likely the Cleveland news simply names a price and terms for such a change.
After all, the Indians’ top brass didn’t just wake up one day and decide their 1950s-era caricature of a mascot was offensive. According to an MLB release, the decision was the product of “dialogue” and “constructive conversations” between MLB commissioner Robert Manfred and the Cleveland Indians front office, during which the club “ultimately agreed with [Manfred’s] position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use.”
Manfred has been suggesting the change for several years now, and the Cleveland Scene reported the Wahoo change was related to Cleveland scoring the 2019 MLB All-Star Game – a very lucrative get.
So, it’s not hard to imagine getting a mascot change rolling may simply require the right amount of pressure at the right time.
However, unlike the MLB, NFL leadership doesn’t seem to be in any rush to denounce their mascot enfant terrible. As recently as 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell defended the Washington Redskins name, saying it is “presented in a way that honors Native Americans.”
Ironically, the DC area is home to another franchise that has gone through several name changes. The NBA’s Washington Wizards used to be the Washington Bullets (and before that the Captial Bullets, and before that the Baltimore Bullets). The team’s owner Abe Pollin changed the name to the “Wizards” in 1996 because it portrayed a more “non-violent image.”
If you want more irony with your irony, the name was initially controversial because “wizards” were commonly associated with the KKK – and the first versions of the team’s logo even bore a pointy little hat.
Is it worth the backlash?
Of course, plenty of fans, Wahoo purists and random commenters who wouldn’t know Chief Wahoo from Chief Noc-a-homa are already decrying the noxious PC culture that led to this, the destruction of a beloved American sports icon.
Fan backlash is a very real factor, as evidenced by the words of Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan.
“We have consistently maintained that we are cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the discussion,” Dolan said as part of the MLB’s announcement. “While we recognize many of our fans have a longstanding attachment to Chief Wahoo, I’m ultimately in agreement with Commissioner Manfred’s desire to remove the logo from our uniforms in 2019.”
The Indians’ tweet of the announcement, carefully worded to avoid details, contains a minefield of angry replies: “Borderline boycotting season or not.” “Everything the left touches it destroys. Think about it.” “Terrible decision. You should not have caved.”
There’s no reason to believe a Redskins franchise name change wouldn’t invite an even more forceful backlash.
In fact, its safe to say the criticism could go all the way up the chain.
President Trump has not shied away from speaking out on issues plaguing the NFL, and like some sort of hand reaching back from the future, he even tweeted about the Redskins name in 2013 after then-President Obama said he would consider changing the name if it was his decision.
“President should not be telling the Washington Redskins to change their name - our country has far bigger problems! FOCUS on them, not nonsense,” he wrote.
Other racially charged mascots
While the Redskins will now get the bulk of the mascot scrutiny, there are several other prominent pro sports franchises that don’t fall far from its shadow: The Atlanta Braves, who play home to the aforementioned “Chief Noc-a-homa”; the Chicago Blackhawks with a logo so chill-looking a prominent Native American activist once said it “lacks dignity”; and the Kansas City Chiefs, who along with the Braves, employ an iconic “war chant” in the stands.
In fact, the Braves’ Chief Noc-a-homa may serve as a blueprint for Chief Wahoo’s future. The character used to be played by an actual human in costume and was a game-day staple on the field and in the bleachers, where his “home” was a teepee.
The logo of Chief Noc-a-homa – generally known as the “screaming Indian” – was an official part of the team’s uniform from 1987 to 1989, when the logo virtually disappeared from the team’s merchandise.
In 2011, the Braves decided to forgo the “screaming Indian” patch on their throwback jerseys. The following year, an apparent attempt to bring the logo back on batting-practice caps was met with sound criticism.
However, one visit to the Braves’ home at SunTrust Park in Smyrna, Georgia, will prove that the spirit and image of Noc-a-homa is still very much alive among fans.
So to it will be for Chief Wahoo, the Redskins name or any other racially charged relic that teams may want to slough off. What is dead may never die, and even the most controversial mascots will live on in fan enthusiasm – and trademarks, of course.