Major League Baseball is making a rather large deal out of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in the major leagues (a dubious bit of self-congratulation -- MLB is commemorating the day it stopped doing something wrong), including holding a "Civil Rights Game" right before the season started. As many people have commented elsewhere, baseball screwed that one up too by including in that game one of the two major league teams that employ offensive stereotypes of Native Americans in their names and logos.
It's time for Chief Wahoo to go.
Native American groups have been calling for pro and amateur sports teams with caricature names, logos and mascots to change them for years. And they've achieved some success at the high school and collegiate levels, including the recent decision by the University of Illinois to eliminate its awful caricature of a mascot, Chief Illiniwek, whose dance appeared to have been choreographed by Elaine Benes. The NCAA has a fairly recent policy under which schools that use offensive names, logos or mascots are not allowed to host postseason or other events, which persuaded some schools (such as St. John's and Marquette) to enter the 21st century by changing their nicknames. But up to this point, MLB and other pro leagues have sat on their hands when it comes to racist names and logos.
You'll hear the arguments that these nicknames aren't actually mocking Native Americans but honoring them. This is obviously false; if using ethnic stereotypes and epithets were a way of honoring segments of our population, the NAACP would be campaigning for the Mets to change their name to the New York Negroes. Besides, if there isn't anything objectionable about the Indians' logo, why don't they use Chief Wahoo as their mascot instead of using a purple monster (oddly reminiscent of the Giant Purple Snorklewhacker) named Slider? Why are there so many organizations endorsing the retirement of Native American-themed team names? The fact that Chief Wahoo is just Jim Crow -- red instead of black, with a similar idiot's grin -- might have something to do with it.
Of course, the issue of offensive team names isn't limited to baseball; the NFL has the team with the most offensive nickname left in pro sports, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins should be playing in a division with the Philadelphia Darkies and the New York Mongoloids. Those terms may be out of favor as racial epithets, but they are epithets nonetheless, borne of a mentality that a person could be judged inferior by the color of his skin.
In fact, both Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary label the word redskin as "offensive." A panel at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office agreed and canceled the Redskins' trademark in 1999, ruling that the name and logo were offensive to Native Americans. But the ruling was temporarily overturned on the grounds that the complaint came too long after the initial trademark filing; that case is still tied up in appeals.
There also is a new petition, filed in 2006 by the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath on behalf of a new set of younger plaintiffs. But not only has the team refused to change its name voluntarily but it continues to make the insulting claim that its racial slur name is meant to honor Native Americans, all the while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to defend its racial epithet nickname against at least two legal assaults.
There is a cost involved in changing a long-held team nickname. Each of these teams has built up substantial brand equity in its name, so there would be some loss associated with a name change. And there's also a one-time switching cost associated with changing the name and logo of any company (think mundane stuff, like signage and stationery). However, given how much media coverage the typical major league sports team receives -- free of charge, I might add -- I don't think this loss would be that significant; fans would adapt to the new name quickly, and there's no risk that they'll suddenly change allegiances and drive 100 miles out of their way to go to some other team's games.
Because MLB teams share their revenues from merchandise sales, and a team that changes its name should see a substantial short-term uptick in sales of the new merchandise, MLB itself could force Atlanta and Cleveland to change their names while compensating them appropriately for the cost of the changeover and for the loss of brand equity.
MLB clearly recognizes that the Indians' logo is offensive. It made a rather ridiculous error by inviting Cleveland to participate in that Civil Rights Game -- let's celebrate civil rights by making fun of the people whose rights we've been violating for 200 years! -- but then changed course slightly by removing the logos of both teams from their uniforms for that one contest.
Several organizations are fighting to change team names, logos and mascots that mock or demean Native Americans. I'm not sure what organizations other than the teams themselves and their law firms are fighting to retain them. Cleveland and Atlanta could do the right thing in this anniversary year and announce that they'll be switching to new names and logos in 2008 -- or Major League Baseball could acknowledge its insensitivity and force them to. It would be a fitting way to honor Robinson's legacy while allowing MLB to distance itself further from its ignominious past.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, provides baseball analysis and commentary for Scouts Inc. and ESPN.com and writes an ESPN Insider blog here.