The Cleveland Indians have faced a relatively small amount of backlash about their Chief Wahoo logo even as the debate about the name of Washington’s professional football team heats up, but over at The New Republic, Marc Tracy found that they have made quite a few moves away from the logo, and when he spoke with the franchise’s communications manager, he learned something interesting:
He did say something very interesting, however, when I brought up the new spring training uniforms. “Spring training’s a different animal,” he said, “and when we’ve been in Arizona, we’ve really focused on the block C—being in that region, in that area, we’re certainly cognizant of that.” In other words, it is apparently one thing to use the chief while in the eastern Midwest, but quite another to use him in the southwest, where (whispered voice) there are actual Native Americans. And the first year the Indians did spring training in Goodyear, Arizona, after having spent the past decade-and-a-half in Florida, was … 2009, the year they first started playing around with the block C in a bigger way. Cynical? Democratic? Whatever it takes to ditch Chief Wahoo.
Tracy’s piece reminded me of a chart I came across near the end of the regular season and after some digging, I was able to find it again. It comes from graphics whiz Craig Robinson at Flipflopflyin.com (you should follow him on Twitter — his graphics really are a delight) and it shows that the Indians still wore Chief Wahoo as their primary logo a majority of the time when they were on the field during the 2013 season. That’s almost certainly less than they used to wear it, since Wahoo used to be their only cap logo. But they aren’t moving away from it that quickly, especially at home, where they wore the logo on their caps in 60 of 81 games. Here’s a snippet of Robinson’s graphic, and you can see the full version here:
CREDIT: Craig Robinson/Flipflopflyin.com
Tracy takes it as a sign of progress that the Indians are moving away from the logo no matter the motivation, and with that I agree. And perhaps he’s right that Dan Snyder and Washington’s fooball team could take a lesson from the Indians’ “flexibility and receptivity to its (spring-training) fanbase.” Cleveland has indeed been more flexible, though judging them against Washington is the lowest of low bars.
I do think it’s telling, though, that Cleveland is making its biggest moves away from the logo when it actually may draw a response from Native Americans and others. It’s obvious when you parse those words that the idea that these logos and names are honorifics to the Native American community is high-level nonsense. If that’s what they were, Cleveland wouldn’t be running from the logo as soon as it had to play scrimmages in a state with an actual Native American community.
Even more than that, though, I think it shows that Cleveland and Washington aren’t really all that different when it comes to their fears of changing logos or names. An overwhelming majority of Washington fans still support the name, and whenever the debate escalates, Snyder runs to them for protection and affirmation, whether through polls or focus groups or long, fact-free letters to season ticket holders. It seems obvious that Snyder doesn’t want to change the name, but a big part of that is that he doesn’t want to piss off the fans who like it and identify with it.
Cleveland’s true feelings about the Wahoo logo are less obvious, but the Indians are following a similar path in their own little way. They’ll give up the logo on the web site and on road uniforms and spring training outfits, but they’re still going to use it at home, where they can hide behind the preferences of their fans, who they’re also going to poll. Cleveland is more receptive, sure, but they still seem to want it both ways: the gradual shift away from the logo in certain instances makes them look better than other teams (like Washington), but maintaining it as the primary logo at home keeps the fans who identify and prefer the logo happy. And it’s not like the team has moved all that far, since the Wahoo logo still appears as a sleeve patch on every jersey other than their throwbacks.
Like Tracy, I don’t care what ultimately rids sports of these logos and names, whether it’s something cynical or otherwise. But while the Indians are a little more receptive in listening to Native Americans on a front that doesn’t matter much (spring training), they’re still giving more weight to the preferences of their fans on the front that does. That may represent some incremental progress, but until Cleveland quits listening only to people whose opinions they already know (and maybe prefer) and starts acknowledging the people who have good reasons to have real problems with the Wahoo logo, they’re never going to truly change. In that way, they don’t seem much different from Washington at all.