That’s the Ballgame

Sarah Wolf, MFA, MSSA Candidate
Community Innovation Network Graduate Student Research Assistant
October 13, 2020

October 2016 was an exciting time to be a Cleveland Indians fan. For the first time in nearly two decades (the last time being 1997), the team blazed its way through the postseason bracket to the World Series. At the time, I was running a yoga and wellness center near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- right in the heart of Red Sox Nation -- but in the fourteen years I’d lived in Boston, I’d never stifled my loyalty to my hometown team. That October, I proudly wore my Cleveland Indians gear to work every day.

That came with its challenges.

It wasn’t the razzing for cheering for a team other than the Red Sox -- it was because of the logo brandished on many of my hoodies and t-shirts: Chief Wahoo, the red-faced cartoon drawing of a Native American, the symbol of Cleveland baseball since the 1940’s. There I was, striding through the studio, glowing from my team’s big win the night before, only to have students walk right up to me and say, “How can you support that racist organization?” This happened more than once during that historic postseason where Cleveland eventually lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Chicago Cubs. It happened on a more public and international stage, too, when the Indians played the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series (the step right before the World Series) and indigenous people tried to have both Cleveland’s team name and logo censored from the games’ television broadcasts. The judge in that case ruled in favor of the team being allowed to proceed business-as-usual, but it certainly heightened the sense of awareness that Chief Wahoo, the Indians -- as a brand -- was long overdue for a change.

I so distinctly remember feeling helpless and even ashamed when I was directly confronted about my decision to be a Cleveland Indians fan. I was “woke” after all -- I was politically engaged and socially aware. I understood that Chief Wahoo was not correct and that the team name was outdated and problematic. Yet, there I was, sporting the gear and cheering them on. And in my defense: I got rid of my Chief Wahoo-based fan gear after that postseason. Did it matter that my loyalty was to my home town and not the team’s name or logo? I told myself that made a difference. Now, four years in the future and still a diehard Cleveland baseball fan, I am mostly convinced that’s OK, despite the team’s troubling branding. Is it, though? I suppose I’m not 100% sure.

In Summer 2020, the news came through that the team is beginning discussions about changing the team name. Chief Wahoo was removed as the official team logo last season and so this move towards a complete rebranding came as a relief to many of us who simply wanted to enjoy watching our team play baseball. The dialogue around the topic, though, has been fraught with tension as so many fans argue that Chief Wahoo is a celebrated character and the team name is part of social histories. I’ve certainly found myself in the throes of arguments with folks who insist that “people are too sensitive.” The comfort I draw from these experiences is that the team name will likely change -- and soon -- and while there will be some who never adapt, who never accept, who never even try to appreciate why the change is necessary, there will be so many more who will adapt and accept and appreciate that their fandom isn’t bound by a name or a logo but by having pride in a place: Cleveland.

As a lifelong fan of the team, having those uncomfortable moments in 2016 lead to me thinking deeply about these kinds of tensions and conflicts. It made me think about my choices and really consider the questions being asked about my choices. On my end, it led to some action as I chose to stop wearing Chief Wahoo-branded clothing. I stopped saying “Go Tribe.” I challenged myself to be more culturally aware in how I was supporting this baseball team that I loved. I talked to my young nephews about the controversy. I readily acknowledged the problems with the team’s brand and articulated my desire for that brand to change.

I also thought about tools I had in my toolkit for conflict management and I started to think about how to have these discussions without inducing shame in the other person. In many cases, the fastest way to shut down a dialogue is by putting the other person on the defensive. Defensiveness blockades progress. Defensiveness grinds discussions to a halt. Productive conversations about challenging topics are often best served by starting from a place of inquiry. For instance, “How do you feel about the Chief Wahoo logo?” might have been a more fruitful place for an actual conversation than “How can you support that racist organization?” As it was, I was confronted by yogis who then stormed away and never gave me the space to share my perspective with them. That’s not only unfortunate for me -- it’s a missed opportunity to story-tell, to connect, to dialogue, and to understand.

I had the chance to reflect on this with a small group during last Friday’s Innovators’ Monthly Meetup when someone suggested a Learning Circles on the topic of anti-racism as it applies to our Native American community members. It was meaningful to have this candid conversation with folks working with the American Indian Movement (AIM) as well as Dr. Chupp, whose work with the Social Justice Institute has involved him directly in supporting the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition's urging for this change with the Cleveland Indians franchise.

Because the focus is often on the perspective of the team’s largely-white fanbase, what’s needed is more intentional focus on the perspective of the indigenous people. Dr. Chupp shared with me findings from research reported to him by local Native American Cynthia Connolly that says that sports logos, caricatures, and names negatively affect the self-esteem of indigenous children. The thing many fans so often forget is that their entertainment is not worth more than the dignity and pride of native peoples whose histories, traditions, and rituals stretch back much, much farther than any of their histories, traditions, and rituals attached to a baseball team’s logo.

With Monday, October 12th being Columbus Day, which is slowly becoming Indigenous People’s Day in many parts of the country, this conversation about how we name things, brand things, and historically realize things is at the forefront of my mind. The lens many of us have been taught to use to view our world is revealing its cracks as we are confronted by systemic racism and other social justice issues. We can no longer deny that a change is not only needed but long overdue. The key element of inching towards a successful reckoning and new vision lies within our ability to have difficult conversations about how power is dispersed -- because it is the powerful who makes the rules. Balancing out that power is the ballgame. Who’s ready to play?