The Cleveland Indians' home opener is Friday afternoon, and many fans will no doubt show up wearing Indians jerseys and caps. But at least some of those fans may be wearing Indians gear that they've modified in a very specific way: by removing the Chief Wahoo logo.
This is the "de-Chiefing" phenomenon, a form of silent protest by a small but growing number of Indians fans who love their team but are opposed to the Wahoo logo, which they view as an offensive caricature. They say they're not accusing pro-Wahoo fans of being racists or telling them what they should or shouldn't wear. They've simply made a decision not to wear the Chief themselves.
De-Chiefing has been taking place under the radar for at least a few years now, and it's not clear who started it. But the practice first began attracting public attention a few weeks ago, when an Indians fan named Dennis Brown was preparing to visit the team's spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz., and tweeted a photo showing how he'd removed the Wahoo sleeve patch from his jersey, leaving a Wahoo-shaped scar on the sleeve:
- Dennis Brown (@DennisBrown) March 11, 2014
Brown's tweet quickly generated reaction among pro- and anti-Wahoo factions on social media. The next day another Indians fan, Michael Kaus (who tweets under the name Cody the Chicken, a reference to the chicken that became the Indians' unofficial mascot last September), tweeted a photo of his own de-Chiefed jerseys, although his patch-removal process didn't leave a scar as Brown's did:
- Cody the Chicken (@CLERallyChicken) March 12, 2014
That in turn led a fan named Keith Good to tweet a photo of his de-Chiefed cap (you have to click the photo link within the tweet to see the image):
- Keith Good (@keithisgood) March 14, 2014
A few days later a new Twitter account called @DeChiefWahoo appeared (it's not clear who runs it) and began encouraging like-minded fans to share photos of their Wahoo-less gear. A few fans have contributed photos showing Indians gear with the Wahoo logos removed, although another fan took a simpler approach:
- #DeChief (@DeChiefWahoo) March 20, 2014
The Indians, through a team spokesman, declined to comment on the de-Chiefing phenomenon. But pro-Wahoo fans, who were already up in arms regarding the Cleveland Plain Dealer's recent editorial calling for Wahoo to be retired, haven't shied away from expressing their feelings about the nascent de-Chiefing movement. The de-Chiefers' tweets have prompted a flurry of angry comments, ranging from the absurd ("What you did was pure communism") to the threatening ("If I go to a game and see defaced gear ... I WILL smack you in front of everyone"), with lots of very pointed vitriol in between. The consistent theme of these comments -- often implicit, sometimes spelled out -- has been, "If you don't like the logo, then you're a bad fan and don't deserve to root for the team."
It's worth noting here that Wahoo isn't even the Indians' primary logo anymore. That status now belongs to the team's block-C logo, with Wahoo having been redesignated as a secondary mark. It's also worth remembering that it's entirely possible to love your favorite team while simultaneously criticizing it. In fact, there's a well-established tradition of fans engaging in various forms of uniform-based protest against their teams, from the New Orleans Saints' paper bag era to the Cleveland Browns' extended period of quarterback futility. Those are things a fan base can rally around, giving humorous voice to a shared sense of frustration and outrage.
But the Wahoo situation, much like the controversy regarding the Washington Redskins' name, has become a proxy battle for a series of larger culture wars: 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 -- we may have our differences out in the real world, but at the ballpark we're all friends and allies. Introduce a politically charged element like de-Chiefing, however, and those differences and animosities are laid bare, creating a friend-or-foe dynamic that can eventually turn toxic. Indians officials have compounded matters by engaging in a slow but unmistakable campaign of de-emphasizing Wahoo, while refusing to acknowledge that that's what they're doing, resulting in a leadership vacuum that pro- and anti-Wahoo forces are both anxious to fill.
To be clear, de-Chiefing is currently a very small movement. And even before its recent emergence, pro-Wahoo fans had been making their own voices heard. There's a pro-Wahoo Facebook page and a new "Keep the Chief" T-shirt.
Still, arguing to retain the status quo is a fairly simple affair that generally boils down to "It's our heritage, it's our tradition, it's who we are." Arguing for change is more complicated. Who are the de-Chiefers, what statement are they trying to make, and how do they feel about their pro-Wahoo counterparts? Uni Watch recently posed those questions to the three de-Chiefers who first brought the phenomenon to light:
Job: Marketing communications
Cleveland connection: Grew up in Cleveland, now lives in Columbus
Level of Indians devotion: "I'm a die-hard. I learned to read by reading the Cleveland sports pages. I've always followed the team closely -- it gets in your blood. I drive up from Columbus for three or four games a year, and I usually go to Opening Day."
Personal feelings about Wahoo: "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. 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."
About his de-Chiefed jersey: "I bought it two or three years ago. I had been thinking about removing the patch, and then we were getting ready to go down to spring training this year and I thought, 'I'm gonna bring the jersey, but I'm not gonna wear the patch.' So the night before we left, I de-patched it. I wanted to leave a shadow, or whatever, on the sleeve, to show that I'd made a conscious choice to remove it, although I didn't want to rip the fabric quite as much as I did."
About posting the photo on Twitter: "I wasn't looking to make a big statement. At that time there were, like, three people who cared what I'd say on Twitter, and they already knew what I thought about Wahoo. It was just a way of showing my friends, 'Look, I'm backing up what I've been talking about.'"
About the response on social media: "Cleveland fans are kind of on the defensive over what we've been through in the past 15 years. We lost our football team, we lost the best player in the NBA, we traded away two Cy Young winners. So I can understand the reaction when they hear they should give up Chief Wahoo. None of the responses shocked me or hurt my feelings."
About wearing the jersey: "When I wore the jersey down in spring training, nobody noticed. And that's fine -- I wasn't looking to flaunt it in anybody's face. I'm not looking to back down from my decision, either. It's just a choice I made for myself."
About pro-Wahoo fans: "They can wear whatever they want, just like I can. I'm not pointing fingers at anybody else and saying, 'You need to take off that Wahoo shirt' -- it's just my choice."
Any plans for more de-Chiefing? "I think I'll just buy things that don't feature Wahoo to begin with."
Cleveland connection: Lives in Akron, works in Cleveland
Level of Indians devotion: "A die-hard. I've been a 20-game season-ticket holder for a few years now. I've started a petition to get MLB to recognize July 5 as Larry Doby Day."
Personal feelings about Wahoo: "When I was a more casual fan, I didn't care so much. 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."
About his two de-Chiefed jerseys: "I've owned the red one since the early 2000s, and I got the cream alternate maybe four years ago. I didn't remove the Wahoo patches right off the bat because I wasn't sure if I could do it with without ruining the jerseys. I eventually removed them about two or three years ago."
About posting the photo on Twitter: "There have definitely been photos of me wearing those jerseys over the years, but I never called attention to the fact that I'd removed the patches. But 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."
About wearing the jerseys: "I don't think anyone's ever noticed [the missing patches]. And that's fine -- if someone did notice, I'd have no problem with that, but I'm not disappointed by the lack of reaction. I didn't do this for other people. I did it for myself."
About pro-Wahoo fans: "I think some of the pro-Wahoo people think that I and others like me are trying to ban them from wearing what they like, but that's not true. I have no more power to tell them what to wear than they have to tell me what to wear. I just think it shouldn't be a logo for the team."
Any plans for more de-Chiefing? "No, I no longer buy anything with Wahoo on it."
Job: Freelance writer and designer
Cleveland connection: Grew up in Toledo, now lives in Cincinnati
Level of Indians devotion: "I'm a lifelong Indians fan, but I'd say I'm more on the casual side. I've designed some new uniform concepts for the team, though. The mascot character is General Moses Cleaveland, who the city was named after."
Personal feelings about Wahoo: "I first remember hearing about the Wahoo controversy during the 1995 World Series because it was the Braves against the Indians, and there was all this talk about how it was two Native American mascots. At the time I thought it was a stupid thing to get upset about. Of course, I was very young then. But in the past few years, I've started to look at the other side of it. One of the turning points for me was when I saw those caps comparing the Indians to other ethnic stereotypes."
About his de-Chiefed cap: "It was a Christmas present three or four years ago. I'd been kicking around the idea [of de-Chiefing it] for a while. Last summer I bought a hat with the block-C logo, and that became my main hat. But I still had the old one, and the idea came to me to remove the logo. I did it last October."
About posting the photo on Twitter: "I didn't see any need to do that -- it was just a personal thing, not a statement I was trying to make. But when I saw the response to Dennis Brown removing the Wahoo patch from his jersey, I decided to post a photo of my cap, as a way to support what he had done."
About wearing the cap: "I haven't gotten any response to it."
About pro-Wahoo fans: "I can understand that they think I'm attacking something they hold dear. That's fair. But this logo, or the iconography behind it, was misappropriated to begin with -- it belongs to Native Americans."
Any plans for more de-Chiefing? "No. I'll just avoid buying things with Wahoo on them. I think that's the most effective approach."
Given how similar the three de-Chiefers' comments are, you might think they'd agreed beforehand on a series of talking points. But they say they haven't communicated much among themselves or tried to coordinate their responses -- they just happen to have similar lines of thought.
So those are the de-Chiefers. But what about the pro-Wahoo forces? Can any of them find common ground, or at least agree to disagree in a civil manner, with the de-Chiefing camp? Which is stronger -- the two sides' shared love for the team or their differing thoughts on the logo? If you're in the pro-Wahoo camp and would like to address these questions (preferably without calling anyone a communist or threatening to get violent), send your comments here. We'll run a follow-up column soon.
Paul Lukas roots for the Mets, whose fans have been known to engage in their own forms of silent protest. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.