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Overthrowing the Chief: The Cleveland Controversy

Just when you thought we could get through the MLB playoffs without any controversy, controversy hit.  Monday a story was dropped that almost single handedly stopped the ALCS in its tracks and for once it wasn’t for any actions on the field.  PEDs? An arrest? A threat made to fans attending the game?  No.  Political correctness and human rights advocates clashed over one of the team’s mascot.

Chief Wahoo, the once beloved mascot of the Cleveland Indians was under fire.  An Ontario lawyer Douglas Cardinal was seeking to ban the Indians from being able to wear their uniforms that were adorned the red faced, smiling Indian due to it being seen as offensive by indigenous people.  Cardinal wanted an injunction to be placed against the team name and logo that would prevent them from being able to wear either on their uniforms at any game played in Toronto.  His solution was to have the Indians wear their spring training uniforms that did not feature the team name or mascot.

The story of the injunction came to light in the states the morning of Monday October 17, 2016 that date of game 3, but actually began Friday before game 1 of the ALCS.  Cardinal is of Blackfoot descent and has been a long time advocate for the rights of indigenous people of Canada.  “Major League baseball is a unique product, but that does not give team licence for such wanton discrimination” said Cardinal.  

As we tend to do these days, when news of the story spread, fans took to the internet to express how they felt.  Sadly, more often than not, social media is a place where people display their ignorance in 140 characters or less.  For every tweet agreeing that the team mascot/name were offensive and should change, there was 3 that were opposed.  Things like “If I were the Indians, I’d have the team wear more Chief Wahoo during the game” and “Blue Jays are loud, annoying birds that I find offensive” were all over Twitter, as if this was this were an argument about being politically correct vs human rights.  

I am not one to tell anyone how to feel or what they should or shouldn’t be offended by, particularly when I am not affected by the offense.  Additionally, I’m not saying that a disagree with the offensive nature of the mascot regardless of how long it has been in place.  Just because something is tradition, doesn’t mean it’s right and shouldn’t change.  

Caricatures of indigenous people with red skin, adorning a feathered head dress have been a fixture in American folklore and political comedy for quite some time.  There are many sports teams in the US that use names that are related to indigenous people; the Atlanta Braves, Florida State Seminoles, the Washington Redskins are the most well known.  Native people are the one racial group that America still seems ok marginalising, but that doesn’t make it right.  Most recently Washington was under fire for their team name and logo.  In their case, the US government stepped in and wanted them to change their name due to Native American groups saying the name is “disparaging” to their culture.  The team, did not agree and did not want to change it. A federal judge sided with the Native Americans and took away the team’s federal copyright on the team logo.  

Native Americans have been protesting outside what is now known as Progressive Field (oh the slight irony in the name) since 1992.  In an interview with the Washington Post, Mark Shapiro, former Indians president and current Blue Jays president, said that the logo “personally bothered” him, but that the people of Cleveland thought differently.  Additionally, Jerry Howarth, the Blue Jays play-by-play man since 1981, has not uttered the Cleveland mascot’s (or Atlanta) name since 1992 when he received a letter from a Native American fan that explained how offensive the names were. 

It took the Cleveland Indians organization until 2009 to listen and begin phasing out Chief Wahoo when the Indians replaced him with the now familiar block “C” on their batting helmets during away games.  Then in 2013, they transitioned those helmets to their home games and after winning a playoff spot last year, there was no trace of the the chief on team uniforms during October.  This year the team made a formal announcement about the demotion of the familiar logo that would now only appear on the sleeves on team uniforms.   

Here in the US this cultural group is the only one that continues to be exploited in this way.  For some reason many people find nothing wrong or negative about the use of such names and caricatures.  Many simply say “it’s been that way from the birth of the team, why change it?”  To that I say there were many practices and beliefs that use to be common place until a few brave people stood up and said it was wrong. It was not that long ago the segregation was accepted and now we have laws in place to prevent discrimination; how is this any different.   

Back to the baseball aspect of the story.  I know when I initially read about this, my first question was why first was why now; why bring this up now?  The Indians have been playing the Blue Jays during the regular season for quite some time and the name or logo has seemingly never been an issue.  

The answer lies within the story.  It’s always been an issue, but advocates were just patient when deciding when to express their feelings on the matter to the United States.  They waited for their team to meet their adversary and a stage where America would be watching, the ALCS.  If the Cleveland team was not going to listen to their US opponents to the name/logo, maybe they would listen to a Canadian judge.  Now we will see if the team, the MLB, United States listened.

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