There’s something vastly different about the Chief Wahoo debate this year. The protests have been going on at Opening Day for years, but the movement spawned a new arm since last season. There’s a new @DeChiefWahoo Twitter account that doesn’t have a ton of followers, but don’t be mistaken: This debate has moved beyond those activists directly impacted and into the fan base. Last week, I spoke with Brian Spaeth about the film he was making at the, but he never even had a chance to get any footage out before a photo from the scene by Peter Pattakos of Cleveland Frowns went viral. This site and others have talked about the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo plenty already, so I’ll skip covering that same ground again. There’s one overriding feeling that I can’t help but focus on: The Cleveland Indians — most notable the Dolan family — is failing to lead on this issue.
I can’t figure out how this will ever end well for the Dolan family. By sitting in the background and seemingly waiting for the world to impact them, they’re failing to control the message. Just this morning, it’s being reported on NPR that ESPN has removed Chief Wahoo as an image by which they might use to talk about the team. Check another box for someone other than those most responsible for Wahoo having more of a stance. The Indians have taken an issue and decided pretty much not to have a stance on it at all. It’s a failure by the Cleveland Indians. They’ve lost control of the message. In fact, they don’t have a message at all and it will be a bigger and bigger problem going forward.
Whether you can believe it or not, I hate talking about this. I’d love nothing more than to just talk about baseball, but it’s not possible. I’ve never liked controversial and divisive subject matters. Part of the way I operate in my life is a desire to want people to get along and find common ground. It’s one of the reasons that I ended up talking about sports.
I started out reviewing movies and music at Blogcritics.org and I found it to be very comfortable. I mostly just talked about the things I liked, so it was pretty easy to keep from fighting with others online. I could argue the finer points of whether Maynard James Keenan was the best rock singer of his generation and anger plenty of Chris Cornell fans, but in the end those debates were just fun.
As a music reviewer, the only time I ever really came under fire was when I gave a less-than-stellar review to Thursday’s album “War all the Time.” I said the album was better than average, but not anywhere near as good as their debut. Those were fighting words for the die-hards. For some reason, the comments are gone from Blogcritics’ website, but I’m telling you it wasn’t pretty.
Then, as Blogcritics grew, they tackled more and more subject areas including politics and so did I. That’s when things started getting contentious and I hated it. The debates were fun for a while, until I started to feel that it wasn’t just about having fun debating topics. People really seemed to hate and distrust me for my opinions. I didn’t have the stomach for that. Looking back on it now, I’m thankful that I lived that life in a pre-Twitter world.
That’s when I took to talking about my love of sports. All was right with the world again, because at least with the contentiousness of sports, it didn’t really matter in any life or death way. Except now, everywhere I seem to look, it does matter in a real life way. I’m not talking about sports as much as I used to be able to because I’m so distracted about the crossover points where the business of sports impacts the real life world of politics with issues involving race, government, taxes and federal indictments. I can’t seem to escape the gravity that I tried to leave behind when I stopped talking politics.
[Related: It’s time to say goodbye to Chief Wahoo]
Hate Dan Snyder all you want, but at least he’s taken a stance. It might not be a stance I agree with, but it’s a stance nevertheless. The Indians do comment on their name and Chief Wahoo from time to time, but they’re not anywhere near being “out front” on the issue—their last official statement regarding Wahoo was more of a “nothing to see here” than anything regarding the issue at hand. That might have been fine when Wahoo was only at issue one day a year, on Opening Day, and by a small contingent of Native American protesters who drew very little attention to the issue, but sometime between last year and this year, the issue has ballooned.
It is much easier to ignore when a group of outsiders protest your brand. It is about to become a lot harder to ignore though if the team’s fans are starting to protest the brand as well. The “de-chief” thing may not be huge yet, but it’s real. There are real baseball fans who are removing Chief Wahoo from hats and jerseys. There are fans who are refusing to buy new Chief Wahoo gear. There are fans refusing to dress their children in anything emblazoned with Wahoo. Where there was once near universal agreement on the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo, there is growing dissension among fans. It’s not hard to project where this is going and how it could manifest itself in verbal arguments and a real potential for physical confrontations between fans this year in Progressive Field.
I’m not rooting for that. I’ve seen the vitriol for people who are de-chiefing their Indians gear online. Is it so hard to imagine someone who has removed the Wahoo logo from his hat or shirt walking through Progressive Field and being encountered with scorn? Add alcohol to the mix for both parties and the chances aren’t all that remote that the situation will become heated quickly.
The question is: What will the Cleveland Indians leadership do then? Will they continue to stand mostly quietly and occasionally sending statements out to individual media outlets pretending that they aren’t moving away from Chief Wahoo? Will they go Dan Snyder and double down on the commitment to keeping the Chief?
I don’t think the Dolans are bad people. I also don’t think they’re stupid. I doubt very highly they don’t know that this is heading straight toward a new logo and possibly even a new name. What is it that keeps them from doing something and being as proactive as they can be now? Is it a lack of leadership instinct? Are they afraid of their own shadow with the customer base? Are they waiting for a third-party “bad guy” that they can place the blame on to save face with the customers?
Until proven otherwise, I’ll just assume it’s a vacuum of leadership. I’ll also hope beyond hope that my predictions of fans fighting among themselves is wrong, though I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.
This is all the stuff that I was trying to get away from when I started writing about sports. I always thought that at least when I disagreed with my fellow Cleveland sports fans that we’d be pulling in the same direction. If we were just talking about baseball that would be 100% true. But until such time as the Dolan family wants to lead on this issue instead of mostly sitting idly by and quiet, baseball will seem almost secondary. And by the time the Wahoo logo’s inevitable extinction is finally here who knows just how fractured the once-proud fan base can become. I’m just really sad that the leadership with the Cleveland Indians seems content to find out.