The Mistake on the Lake

Why are we all still okay with the Cleveland Indians brand?

Last year, the Cleveland Indians were surreptitiously gifted the 2019 MLB All Star Game in exchange for dropping one of the most racist logos in professional sports history — Chief Wahoo. The team actually had to be bribed to do something they should have willingly and proudly done on their own decades ago. And that, to me, is embarrassing.

But it doesn’t end there. Even though the team no longer officially uses the Chief Wahoo logo, the team’s moniker itself is still problematic. We have many similarly named teams, like the Atlanta Braves or the Kansas City Chiefs, but at least those are cloaked in some semblance of valor or status — however hollow. The shame with those brands is somewhat hidden, easier for us to all ignore. But with the Indians, it’s just so bluntly, nakedly racist.

Maybe what this problem lacks is a little context. Imagine for a minute if the Cleveland Indians existed alongside other racially-charged team names and it’s easier to see exactly what this brand is doing and why it’s harmful.

Aren’t these all ridiculous? Inappropriate? It’s laughable to think a team named the Jews or the Orientals could exist in 2019, right? And yet the Cleveland Indians not only continue to exist, they’re playing host to one of baseball’s most prestigious events this year. And we’re all supposed to ignore the fact they’ve long been one of the most reprehensible brands in pro sports.

The aim of this project is of course to shock, but perhaps the most shocking thing is that many would look at these other logos and be more shocked. How are these logos any different from what Cleveland did for so long? The truth is they’re not. We’re rightly outraged at racist depictions of Blacks, Asians, Jews, and others, but why are we somehow alright with bigotry towards Native Americans? Looking at them all side-by-side, these should all be viewed with the same amount of scorn. One or a few of these are not worse than the others. You’re either outraged at all of them or none of them.

If anything, the decades-long acceptance of this brand is more an indictment on all of us. We all stood by, not batting an eye whenever we saw the Chief Wahoo on SportsCenter. We never even stopped to think when we saw white men wearing full-feathered headdress banging drums in the stands at Jacobs Field. Long ago I guess it was just decided that Native Americans were not worthy of our attention or concern. Which is why, despite Cleveland’s bregudged removal of the Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms, you’ll no doubt still see the racist depiction during broadcasts of the week’s events. Whether worn by fans in the stands or on signs in and around the stadium, the full ugliness of the brand is still on display. I guess that’s just a reminder that it will be a long, long time –– if ever –– before we can scrub stains like this from our society. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stop trying.

No race, creed, or religion should endure the ridicule faced by the Native Americans in professional sports. Can you imagine the uproar after a professional sports team displayed any of these fictional logos on their uniforms, television broadcasts, fan merchandise, and every other brand touchpoint each and every night? Well you don’t have to imagine anything because the Cleveland Indians have been doing this same thing, largely without much of the uproar, for the past 90 years.

The entirety of the Cleveland Indians brand is so unapologetically prejudiced, the driving mantra behind the ownership’s tacit resistance to change —until, that is, Major League Baseball finally stepped in with an ultimatum and a shiny ASG as reward. In an age where brands are posting mea culpas left and right on social media for even the smallest slight towards humanity, how the team proudly paraded their identity in public for so long is in some ways impressive.

But with Cleveland now somewhat half-assedly acquiescing by removing Chief Wahoo from their uniforms, they’ve put the brand in limbo — nothing about it is interesting, from the typography to the uniforms, and the name feels so unnecessary at this point. It’s just an odd reminder of the team’s long history of cultural misappropriation. A better move would have been a full-on re-brand preceded by a heartfelt apology, encouraging education on the issue and spurring fans to rid the city of the terrible logo. A chance for everyone to move on and start something new that the entire city and country can be proud of.

Instead, the brand remains largely intact while we all continue on… not caring. Until one day, when finally enough people will care, or maybe the right people will start to care. And then future generations will look back on us with pity, like we judge the blissfully unaware generations before us who drove around without seat belts, smoked cigarettes, and lived in lead-painted houses.

Sports teams used to demean entire races of people? What were they thinking?