Chief Wahoo and ‘The graceful exit of casual racism’

Indians_Logos2By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

There’s been a change in Major League Baseball so slow moving – almost glacieresque – you probably didn’t even notice it, even though it happened right in front of your eyes.

Over the years the call to remove Native American mascots from sporting institutions has grown louder. Typically these cases see one of two outcomes, the most common being an organization doing the intelligent thing by simply changing the name or purging offensive imagery from their repertoire after the initial public discussion. We saw this at U of I with the abandonment of Chief Illiniwek in 2007 after the NCAA cracked down on abusive American Indian imagery.

The other cases usually see a rich stubborn white man trot out tired cliches about honor and tradition. See: Dan Snyder, petulant owner of the Washington Redskins who finds people that may or may not actually be Native American to say they don’t care about his team’s horribly racist name.

Or see any number of cases at small high schools and universities around the country where a single donor or noted alumni ends up making a scene while slowly tumbling down the wrong side of the long slope of history, in some cases dragging the institution with them.

Even most of those cases end up with the offensive imagery going away after the rhetoric and ignorance dies down.

But there is a third way, a quieter way, a more subtle way. There is a way that hardly registers a blip on the radar of the sporting landscape. In fact, it’s so subtle that even bigots who stand so proudly behind their racist caricatures have missed it happening right in front of their faces.

Chief Wahoo, the long serving image of the Cleveland Indians, has been fading into the background for years now. The Indians haven’t made any big PR statements, haven’t done any “Look at us and our ability to see the forest for the trees!” grandstanding. They’ve simply phased the red-faced Native American stereotype that dominated their branding for decades out.

Don’t believe it? Go check out their homepage:

Cleveland Indians Homepage

You can scroll the entire length of it and only see three/maybe four tiny Chief Wahoos, all of which are on caps on a player’s head.

That cap and a small sleeve patch on the jersey are the only remaining spaces the Chief has to occupy, replaced by an understated block type capital “C” as the franchise’s primary brand mark.

And there wasn’t any pomp and circumstance to it; the Indians have just been slowly walking the Chief out the backdoor for years now. A graceful exit for an image from a bygone era, one where casual racism at the expense of a minority group was okay to represent your sports team.

It should really be a lesson to any schools and sports teams left out there who haven’t already done the honorable thing and retired their racist mascots. You don’t need to make a big show of it, you don’t need to make any statements or have any press conferences to show us how much you care.

Just do it. Do it quietly. Do it with some humility. If you execute it as well as the Indians have you might even get to do it on your own terms and keep the name, assuming the name isn’t an overtly racist term like, say, “Redskins” or something similar. If that’s the case just burn the whole thing down and start again as the Jaguars or Lions or something else innocuous.

But there’s no need for backslapping when your group finally wakes up to the fact that having a racist nickname isn’t a great idea, and there’s no need to fight back or to allow people to paint your school or team in a bad light by doing it for you.

You don’t need to knock this one out of the park and try to make a show of it. Just go with the pitch the other way, take the easy hit and move on.

The Indians have given anyone left dragging their feet on this issue the ultimate road map for how to gracefully navigate what used to be a rather precarious PR problem. Here’s hoping the late adopters take advantage.

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