In the past few months, debate surrounding the use of racial caricatures as pro sports mascots has reached a fever pitch. Just ask the Washington Redskins, who've endured significant backlash for both their refusal to change their name and their half-assed attempts to placate their critics.
But a few miles west, fans of the MLB's Cleveland Indians are taking a stand. In a motion of solidarity, a small but growing number have been "de-Chiefing" their paraphernalia by removing the offensive "Chief Wahoo" mascot from caps and jerseys that bear its likeness.
Image Credit: Clevescene
ESPN's Paul Lukas noted that while this practice has been around for years, it underwent a resurgence when Indians fan Dennis Brown posted this photo to his Twitter account last month:
"I'm a die-hard [fan]," says Brown. "I've owned a ton of Wahoo paraphernalia over the years, and it's only the last five or six years that I've started to move from being pro-Wahoo to ambivalent to anti-Wahoo."
He adds: "It's been mostly a slow evolution, but there was this one thing in 2012, when I was reading an interview with the Native American author Sherman Alexie in TIME magazine, and at one point he said, 'Put images of Chief Wahoo and Sambo next to each other.' Once I saw it in that light, I decided I wasn't going to wear that anymore."
The photo received the expected ripples of backlash, but many fans copied Brown's lead, marking their posts using the #DeChief hashtag.
The movement even spawned its own Twitter account:
Ohio lawyer Michael Kaus is one of a growing number of conscientious fans drawn to the "de-Chiefing" movement: "When I saw that other fan [Dennis Brown] being attacked for removing his patch, I decided to show my support for him by tweeting my photo," says the self-proclaimed "die-hard."
"When I was a more casual fan, I didn't care so much," he explains. "But since coming back to the game after college, I've always been anti-Wahoo. I'm ashamed that it's part of the face of my team. It's embarrassing that we're holding on to this. If it had any other context, it would clearly be viewed as racist. But because it's part of a tradition, people think that makes it OK. I don't think it does."
The conflation of racism with tradition is nothing new, but Lukas reports that this case is unique because of the conflict it's stirring among fans of the same team. The Wahoo situation "has become a proxy battle for a series of larger culture wars," he writes. "[Liberal] versus conservative, red state versus blue state, even jock versus nerd. Under normal circumstances, these are precisely the kinds of cultural differences that melt away when we root for a team."
But not here: One telling response to the #DeChief photos reads, "If I go to a game and see defaced gear ... I WILL smack you in front of everyone." So much for fan camaraderie.
Cleveland Indians fan in "red face" meets an American Indian/Image Credit: Cleveland Frowns
It's also not helping that the Indians organization has been mostly silent on the issue. They've made encouraging steps toward gradually replacing Wahoo with a simpler "C" logo, but their refusal to acknowledge that anything was wrong with Wahoo in the first place leaves a distinct void in leadership on the topic. In lieu of taking a stand, they're letting the fans battle it out — which doesn't speak well for fostering a friendly ballpark dynamic.
Nevertheless, an organic fan-based intervention like "de-Chiefing" is exactly what pro teams need in order to finally realize that issues like these are important and matter to fans. If the rest of sports fans follow suit, we may have a lasting and impactful movement on our hands.