The Cleveland Indians hosted the All-Star Game at Progressive Field in 2019 and Chief Wahoo wasn’t invited. The ballpark was scrubbed clean of the home team’s former logo, a grinning cartoon character with a red face.
The Indians had by then switched to a block letter C as their primary logo instead of their tired old Chief. It’s a boring look, no doubt. But at least it’s not offensive.
On Monday, Cleveland took it a step further and said it would change its name entirely. No timetable was provided, but presumably by the start of the 2022 season, the franchise will be known by something other than the Indians for the first time since 1914.
That the Washington Football Team had to drop its former nickname was glaringly obvious or should have been before it finally made the move this year. It was a racist slur offensive to millions of people and had been for decades.
But the Indians, Chief Wahoo aside, weren’t being malicious. The same is surely true of the Atlanta Braves, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Blackhawks, and the countless high school and college teams who have adopted Native American names and imagery.
Isn’t this another example of a headlong rush to the higher ground of political correctness?
Except there wasn’t a rush. Cleveland did more than unofficially retire an old logo. It also started a conversation with Native American groups six months ago and decided over time that its organization stood for something more than propping up its mascot.
The decision to examine their team name was a product of the civil rights protests that occurred in Cleveland and other cities following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
As team owner Paul Dolan noted Monday, his predecessors set a high standard of moral conduct by breaking the American League’s color line with Larry Doby in 1947 and hiring baseball’s first Black manager in Frank Robinson in 1975.
The National Congress of American Indians has lobbied professional and amateur teams about this issue for many years. The group cites studies that show the names and logos damage the self-image of native children and perpetuate the way native people are often portrayed in popular culture.
Change the Mascot, a campaign run by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York makes the simple, yet powerful, point that Native Americans as a group shouldn’t be relegated to sports mascots.
The Washington football team dishonestly contended for years that it was honoring native people with its former name. Did anybody really believe that?
Joel Barkin, a spokesman for the Oneidas, believes what was important about Cleveland’s decision is that it was the product of a carefully considered process.
“They sat down and met with people who had concerns and heard them out,” he said. “It’s not that complicated to modify something that’s not aligned with your team’s values.
“They took a step back and examined the issue. That’s commendable and really all we’re asking.”
The NCAI and other groups hope the decisions made in Washington and Cleveland will influence other teams at all levels to change their names, or at the very least give the issue a thorough appraisal and listen to those most affected.
Beyond the ethical considerations, it’s an opportunity. Cleveland now had a chance to have a little fun deciding on a new name and literally rebrand the organization. The Cleveland Spiders, a team from the late 1800s, would be a good place to start.
Changing team names isn’t uncommon. For less altruistic reasons, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays edited their team name before the 2008 season. The Houston Astros gave up being the Colt .45s after three years.
The team that won the World Series this year was known as the Atlantics, Grays, Bridegrooms, Superbas, and Robins before settling on the Dodgers in 1932.
Ultimately, a team’s identity comes from its city, its fans, and its accomplishments, not a name or logo. A team should help bring people together, not drive them apart.