When it comes to nicknames and logos involving Native Americans, sports franchises in Washington and Cleveland are each other’s worst half.
Washington’s NFL team uses a downright slur for its nickname, but the logo is a relatively realistic depiction of what’s presumably a proud warrior. It suggests dignity, grace and strength, a stark contrast to the term that accompanies it.
Conversely, the Cleveland Indians’ nickname is much less objectionable on face value if, for some inexplicable reason, you’re hellbent on using Native Americans as mascots. However, the Indians’ Chief Wahoo is utterly abominable and deplorable.
Racist images don’t come any better than this vile cartoon, red-faced and wide-eyed with an outrageously toothy grin and big nose. It’s a shucking-and-grinning, Sambo-like mockery of this country’s indigenous people.
Envision similar imagery for the Cleveland Africans. Picture the Cleveland Asians or Cleveland Hispanics. How about the Cleveland Jews? Pick the most blatant, stereotypical characteristics, slap on a stupid, buck-toothed smile and you’re in business.
You don’t have to be a member of the group to realize the symbol is offensive. You don’t even have to imagine how it must feel, though that helps.
You just need half a brain, half a heart and a pinch of common sense.
The franchise says it has de-emphasized Chief Wahoo in recent years, making it a secondary mark. A solitary letter now adorns the batting helmets and has been featured on caps during road games. “We’ve gone to the Block C as our primary mark,” CEO Paul Dolan told Cleveland.com in April. “Clearly we are using it more heavily than we are the Chief Wahoo logo.”
Really? You can’t tell by watching the postseason.
Cleveland has worn Chief Wahoo caps in every game. It enjoys prominent display on the left sleeve of team jerseys. It still smacks you in the face, hard as ever. The abhorrent logo burns my eyes and grieves my spirit every time I see it. Which is often, when once is one time too many.
There’s no hint that Chief Wahoo is being phased out as manager Terry Francona answers questions at news conferences or pitcher Corey Kluber peers in for signs. Nothing suggests that the team finds the emblem repugnant when it’s everpresent on the field – as shortstop Francisco Lindor works his magic – and ubiquitous on the Internet – as fans shop for team merchandise.
“I know that that particular logo is offensive to some people, and all of us at Major League Baseball understand why,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters before Game 2 of the World Series. “The local club makes decisions about its logos. Fans get attached to logos. They become part of a team’s history.”
Confederate flags and swastikas are part of history, too. So are nooses and burning crosses.
That doesn’t mean those who sympathize with such symbols should be allowed to flaunt them without repercussions. Some relics need to remain in the past, not be celebrated as worthwhile carryovers from the so-called “good old days,” when society was less enlightened and proud of it.
“I’ve talked to Mr. Dolan about this issue,” Manfred said. “We’ve agreed away from the World Series at an appropriate time we will have a conversation about this. I want to understand fully what his view is, and we’ll go from there.”
Manfred doesn’t need a meeting to understand. He can browse sale receipts for a clear answer. Some of the best-selling apparel in the team store is emblazoned with the hideous cartoon. After the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote a 2014 editorial urging the team to retire Chief Wahoo, merchandise bearing the drawing flew off the shelves. Talk of dropping the logo only fuels more sales.
Fans who were raised on the caricature view it as harmlessly as Bugs Bunny and refuse to let go. They vote with their dollars and Dolan hears them. That helps him tune out the obvious and take a deep dive into denial, with his father, Larry Dolan, leading the way. The elder Dolan bought the team in 2000 and promptly doubled down.
“I firmly reject that Wahoo is racist,” Larry Dolan said during a 2001 debate at Oberlin College. “I see that it makes some Natives uncomfortable – clearly not all. I think I understand racism when I see it.”
The “It’s not racist” argument is a familiar refrain for defenders of racist imagery. It’s tradition. It’s heritage. It’s unintentional. It’s just a symbol. They blame opposition on hypersensitive and excessive political correctness.
As if harboring racist and/or sexist viewpoints is more honorable than getting with the times. We don’t have to consider something right just because it wasn’t viewed as wrong in the past.
But what about the Fighting Irish, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings? Yeah, let’s use those nicknames to support the objectification of America’s most marginalized group ever, dating to the country’s formation. Let’s act like a fan can’t love the team and despise the mascot, can’t call for a change without it being an affront to Cleveland pride.
Paul Dolan told Cleveland.com that the team has “no plans to get rid of Chief Wahoo. It is part of our history and legacy.”
Well, plenty of atrocities are part of our history and legacy, too. But they shouldn’t warrant nostalgic feelings.
Neither should a despicable, indefensible caricature.