McGinnis: Farewell to “the Chief” – The Indians should jettison their “traditional” — and prejudicial — logoThursday, October 31st, 2013
It’s time. It’s time for Ohio sporting culture to admit that it has an ugly stain on its soul. It’s time for us to think outside ourselves and reevaluate our priorities. It’s time to make a change, and to make it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because of an erupting controversy that leads to us dragging our feet in an embarrassing fashion, until we change anyway — because we have to, instead of want to.
It’s time for Chief Wahoo — the Cleveland Indians’ divisive logo — to be retired, permanently.
I know, I know, who am I to dare to suggest such a change for a franchise with nearly a century of tradition behind it? I’ll tell you — I am a die-hard fan of Cleveland baseball. Supporting the team was part of my childhood, inspired by my father’s love of the franchise. And while most of the athletic traditions my dad embraced no longer hold the same fascination, I remain a passionate fan of the Tribe.
But as I grew into adulthood, I matured in other ways, as well. I learned to try and think outside my own head. I became aware of the feelings of others. And I grew to understand the implications of, and be shamed by the use of, a racist caricature that still has the potential to cause emotional pain for people.
Created in 1947 at the behest of great sports promoter Bill Veeck, Chief Wahoo’s earliest incarnation — a yellow-skinned cartoon with a large, banana-esque nose — lasted only a few years before being tweaked into the grinning, red-skinned creation it is now. The logo has been ubiquitous on Cleveland uniforms ever since, occasionally becoming the subject of controversy before the talk subsides again like the tide.
The next tide of public opinion may not depart so quietly, however. The issue of racial stereotypes in general — and in connection with sports teams in particular — is right in the crosshairs of pop culture as we speak. As the controversy and outcry grows louder and louder for the Washington Redskins of the NFL to change their name, team owner Dan Snyder has dug in his heels and loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen that his organization will never, ever, ever do so.
Those who stand behind Snyder and his team point to the decades of “tradition” behind the name. This argument that holds as much water as the old guy in “The Lottery” who complains about how there’s nothing but trouble in ceasing his town’s “tradition” of stoning someone at random. Arguing that you should continue to do something that’s wrong, just because you’ve always done it that way, is no argument at all.
It’s clear the “Redskins” name is a derogatory caricature born of a time where society was much less sensitive to racial stereotypes. The fact it’s been around a while is the only real thing in its favor. Be honest — if the “Redskins” name had been introduced, say, last year, could Snyder make the same defiant proclamations and come off as anything but boorish?
The same issue is clearly at the heart of Chief Wahoo’s use. Really, the main reason why the logo hasn’t gotten greater attention is almost certainly because the Redskins — a more egregious example in a more popular sport — is still out there. But the heat is being turned up. And as recently as this week, news came out of an Indians’ organization poll asking fans whether the logo should be retained.
Many fans stubbornly refuse to budge on the issue, making proclamations about the “character” the logo brings to the team. The team itself, though, has seemed increasingly uncomfortable with the Chief’s grinning visage, clearly making its use less and less prominent in recent years. It’s the fans who remain adamant about retaining Chief Wahoo, even more than the organization.
It’s time for that to change. It’s time to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and that piece of sports iconography, and recognize that there’s something seriously wrong with endorsing a cartoonish caricature of our land’s native inhabitants. It’s time to recognize that an attachment to a piece of advertising art does not excuse the prejudice it represents. It’s time to acknowledge that removing a symbol does not destroy the character or history of the team it represents.
And it’s probably time to change the name “Indians,” too — but, hey, baby steps.