Wednesday night was the first time the Cleveland Indians have made the playoffs since 2007, so their fans were understandably excited to see postseason baseball. But when Ryan Raburn laced a double to the leftfield wall in the bottom of the second inning, TBS, which was broadcasting the one-game playoff, gave us an unfortunate visual of Cleveland fans who took the team’s “Indians” name a little too far. The three fans painted their faces red to match Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo logo and added feathers and head-dresses too:
Fans obviously don’t see much of a problem with this sort of dress-up, because they do it at Indians games and Washington Redskins games and at other sporting events featuring Native Americans. They Tomahawk Chop and depict Native Americans getting slaughtered and all sorts of other ignorant things because they are fans and because the appropriation of Native American imagery and culture in sports, not to mention in the rest of society, has desensitized them to the fact that Native Americans deserve respect. We’d never be OK with this if it was another racial minority being depicted, if fans showed up to games wearing blackface.
And neither would TBS. So why did they choose to focus on these fans? One possible explanation is that TBS itself is particularly desensitized to the whole issue because it used to be closely affiliated with another team that appropriates Native American culture. TBS’ founder, Ted Turner, used to own the Atlanta Braves, and the network used to broadcast the Braves’ every game. TBS played a major part in making the Tomahawk Chop a thing during the Braves’ worst-to-first playoff run in 1991 and during Atlanta’s incredible stretch of 15 consecutive division titles thereafter. If TBS doesn’t see a problem with this sort of dress-up, it isn’t hard to understand why.
But it isn’t just TBS, because this probably would have happened on other networks too. These networks, though, don’t get the same benefit of assumed ignorance we often give fans because they have more responsibility than fans do. Just because Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Indians have decided it’s OK for people to dress like this at games doesn’t mean TBS or any other network has to pan the crowd looking for them. It doesn’t mean they should put them on TV. So why do they continually do it with Native Americans? They can’t possibly be unaware of the debate about logos like Chief Wahoo and the Redskins name. They can’t possibly be ignoring the types of conversations that are taking place in news and production rooms across the country about whether or not those names, logos, and images should be used. They can’t possibly believe, even for a second, that they’d scan the crowd and focus on fans wearing blackface or stereotyping other racial minorities.
The use of these logos in sports has helped trivialize Native Americans and their culture to the point where even TBS doesn’t realize that dressing up like this is at best inappropriate and at worst horribly racist. It’s one thing for fans to be slower in coming that understanding. But when it comes to things that are needlessly stereotypical and racist, TV networks like TBS have no excuse for not being better.