A reader writes:
As a long-suffering Cleveland Indians fan, I thought I would weigh in on this issue. I absolutely loath the “grinning Indian” that has been the team’s mascot for decades. In the club’s defense, it seems that they have been trying to limit its use despite what appears to be support for the image by fans. Today, the team uses either a script “I” or an uppercase “C” on its uniforms and caps. Eradicating the emblem altogether would be the right thing to do.
But what is not commonly known is that the team name actually came from a fan contest in the early 20th century to rename the Cleveland club. The name honors Louis Sockalexis, one of the first and only Native Americans to play major league ball. Is the term Indians anachronistic? Yes. But the name was not selected to disparage. I think that makes a difference.
As a Cleveland transplant who also happened to go to Florida State, I can’t stand the Indians logo (or name for that matter) and see it as something that holds back the city on par with Cuyahoga River burning. Not sure what a suitable replacement would be, but dropping Chief Wahoo (yeah, seriously) would be a big start. Maybe the team could just be “Cleveland” and continue to be referred to as “The Tribe” informally.
Here is a hint: when your physical mascot at the field has to look like [the photo seen above] because your real mascot is too offensive, you might want to change your mascot.
Another example is the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois. They retired their Chief Illiniwek mascot in 2007 after the NCAA deemed it a “hostile or abusive” symbol. Originally, the entire name “Fighting Illini” was going to have to go, but it turned out that it predated Chief Illiniwek and referenced soldiers from Illinois that fought in WWI.
Should Congress be involved? I honestly don’t know, but it did start a discussion here on your blog, so some good has already come of it. The best pressure the government can do is to place the copyrights for the logos for the Chiefs, Indians, Braves, Redskins in the public domain. Once any guy with a screenprinting setup can use the logo to put on merchandise their would be some clear-cut economic incentives to finally change mascots.
I have been a Redskins fan all my life and when I first hear the word “Redskins” I immediately think about the NFL team. It was until my teenage years that some people use “Redskins” as a racial slur. For a long time, I was back-and-forth on this. But then I saw this Washington Post article about the origin of the term “Redskins.” It was created by … Native Americans. They used the term as pride and endearment. Whites used the term for endearment as well. Then in the mid 1800s, authors and writers started using “Redskins” to degrade the Native Americans.
For me, the question of whether “Redskins” is racist or not is tied to the person behind the team. George Preston Marshall, the original owner of the Redskins, moved the team from Boston to Washington to attract the Southern crowd. In the late ’50s, he changed one of the lines of “Hail to the Redskins” from “Fight for old D.C.” to “Fight for Old Dixie.” A year later, it went back to the original lyrics. Also at that time, the NFL pressured Marshall to get a player in color and the Redskins were the last team to integrate.
If I were living 50 years ago, I would of demand changing the nickname because of Marshall’s actions. Now, I think the Redskins reflect its true origin: pride, endearment and character from their football team. It started with the elder, late George Allen. Then the Redskins were really “The Redskins” when Joe Gibbs came in coach the team to three Super Bowl titles. Now with the ascension of Robert Griffin III, the Redskins are back to relevance in the NFL. It’s funny that when the Redskins are good, the critics propped up about the name and when they suck, they stay quiet and laugh at their futility.
Update from a reader:
Your reader repeats a commonly believed, but false legend. The Cleveland Indians were not, in fact, named in honor of Chief Sockalexis, or any actual Native American person. Rather, after the 1914 season, Cleveland’s American League team faced the prospect of playing without their star player, Nap Lajoie, for whom the press and public commonly called the team the Naps. The selection of the name Indians in 1915 was not the result of a “fan contest,” and it had nothing to do with Chief Sockalexis. Rather, it was pure corporate marketing, an attempt to steal some glory from the then-dominant Boston Braves of the National League. The Braves now play in Atlanta, after a stint in Milwaukee. And the Braves also gave their name to Boston’s football Braves, who adopted the nickname Redskins and moved to Washington in the 1930s.
As for the Braves? The team has long maintained, with some credibility, that the name originally referred to the patriot tax protesters of the Boston Tea Party, some of whom dressed as Indians for the event. Here’s the best linkable scholarly study of the Indians naming history.
(Photo: Cleveland Indians mascot Slider entertains the crowd during the game against the Seattle Mariners at Progressive Field on August 23, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. By Joe Robbins/Getty Images)