Traditionalists want to keep the Chief

Can the pro- and anti-Wahoo fans find common ground? Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Last Wednesday I wrote a column about a small but growing group of Cleveland Indians fans called "de-Chiefers," who are protesting the team's Chief Wahoo logo by removing the Wahoo patches from their jerseys and caps. At the end of that column, in the interests of equal time, I invited pro-Wahoo fans to get in touch if they wanted to express their side of the Wahoo debate. Several readers responded, and I made arrangements to interview some of them for this follow-up piece.

But then, on Friday, something unexpected happened: As you may have heard, an Indians fan named Pedro Rodriguez showed up at the team's home opener with his face painted like Chief Wahoo and ended up face-to-face with Robert Roche, a Native American who was on hand to protest the team's use of the Wahoo logo:

The photo quickly went viral and generated a lot of chatter over the next several days. You can read a full account of the encounter, from someone who was there on the scene, here. The Indians, through a team spokesman, declined to comment on the incident.

The photo appears to have shaken up both sides of the Wahoo controversy. Whichever side you're on, the photo makes it clear that this isn't just a debate about abstract ideas or graphic design -- it involves real people.

That underscores the questions I posed at the end of that last column: Can the pro- and anti-Wahoo forces find common ground, or at least agree to disagree in a civil manner? And which is stronger -- the two sides' shared love for the team or their differing thoughts on the logo?

Those are among the questions I posed to three pro-Wahoo fans who got in touch after last week's column. Here they are:

Jonathan Meckler

Age: 20

Occupation: College student

Cleveland connection: Grew up in Cleveland, currently attends Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland

Level of Indians devotion: "Diehard. Our family has season tickets, and I have close to 10 Indians jerseys and caps."

Feelings about Chief Wahoo: "It means a lot. It's a special symbol that's so closely related to the Indians. It makes me think of good times in the '90s, when the team was winning. It's a positive image -- he's smiling, he's happy, it's a joyous thing."

Feelings about the block "C" logo: "It's so generic. A 'C,' that could belong to Chicago or Cincinnati. But Chief Wahoo is unique to Cleveland. I wouldn't be opposed [to changing the logo] if maybe we could come up with a logo that's still unique but wouldn't be perceived as offensive. I don't know what that would be, necessarily. But I think it's important to have something that's unique and represents Cleveland."

Feelings about the Wahoo controversy: "To a certain extent, it's divided the fan base. I don't think it's a huge issue, though. I think it's generational. I think older people are more pro-Wahoo. Younger people are more willing to say, 'Hey, maybe we should retire Chief Wahoo.' That's not to say a majority of young fans are anti-Wahoo, but maybe a larger percentage of younger fans are open to that point of view."

Do criticisms of Wahoo make you feel like you personally are under attack? "No. All of us are devoted Indians fans -- we just have different views on this topic."

If you dislike a team's logo, does that make you a bad fan? "No, that makes no sense. You can be just as big an Indians fan even if you don't support the logo. If people disagree with me on Wahoo, that doesn't make them any less of an Indians fan than I am."

Feelings about the de-Chiefers: "I'd almost prefer that they wear something that never had Wahoo to begin with. It's a little unsettling when they rip off the patch. But if I saw one of them at a game, I wouldn't necessarily say anything -- it's not my place to do that. Maybe at a sports bar, or at a party, I might say something. Like, 'Hey, so I see you're not wearing Chief Wahoo. What are your reasons for that?' Just keep it low-key, not in an accusatory way."

Which is stronger -- your shared bond with de-Chiefers as Indians fans, or your disagreement over the logo? "I think the bond we have as Indians is much stronger than anything involving the logo. It's not like I wouldn't associate with people because they're de-Chiefers."

Feelings about last Friday's encounter between Pedro Rodriguez and Robert Roche: "That photo is pretty cringe-worthy. I think the guy in redface took it way too far. I remember when I was at the wild-card game last year against the Rays, there were some people who had painted their faces red and they got on TV. That was an especially poor reflection of Indians fans and pro-Wahoo people. I would implore Indians fans to stop doing things like that. It doesn't help the cause of keeping Chief Wahoo -- it only hurts it."

Prediction for Wahoo's future: "Truthfully, within the next decade, I think Chief Wahoo will probably be no more. I'm somewhat resigned to that fate. I'll still have all my Chief Wahoo stuff, and I'll still wear it, but I'll know when I go to the games that it won't be on the players' hats or helmets."

Alex Connor

Age: 29

Occupation: Real estate law

Cleveland connection: Born and raised in Columbus, lifelong Indians fan

Level of Indians devotion: "Diehard. I have a cap, a jersey, and a few T-shirts, all with Chief Wahoo."

Feelings about Chief Wahoo: "The Indians are the team that I love, and the my love for the game is due in large part to the success they had during the '90s. Wahoo is the logo of that team -- it gives me positive feelings. I can see how people are offended by the logo, but I don't see it as a racist symbol. It's a cartoon, so obviously it was never intended to be an accurate depiction."

Feelings about the block "C" logo: "I like it better than the script 'I.' The block 'C' has started to grow on me, but I still think it's a little bland."

Feelings about the Wahoo controversy: "I'm angry that this issue is what a lot of people associate with the Indians. I think it's not fair, because I think there are lots of positive things about this team. The Indians have actually been one of the most progressive franchises -- they had Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, and Frank Robinson, the first black manager."

Do criticisms of Wahoo make you feel like you personally are under attack? "A little bit. I'm wearing this hat just to support my team, and I'd be a little bit hurt if someone took something else from that, like that I'm a racist or something like that."

If you dislike a team's logo, does that make you a bad fan? "No, I don't think that's accurate. Regardless of which logo's on your hat, I think we're all rooting for the team. I've rooted for plenty of teams whose logos or uniforms I don't particularly care for. I don't think that makes you a bad fan."

Feelings about the de-Chiefers: "What they're doing doesn't bother me. What they said [in last week's article] was fine. I accept what they're doing, and I admire that they're willing to take a stand like that. And I like that they're not letting it get in the way of their fandom."

Which is stronger -- your shared bond with de-Chiefers as Indians fans, or your disagreement over the logo? "The bond we share as Indians fans is stronger."

Feelings about last Friday's encounter between Pedro Rodriguez and Robert Roche: "I felt offended, like anyone would. I mean, dude, you just don't do that! The logo itself I'm okay with, but doing stuff like that, that's absolutely wrong. I admit that I'm starting to have some doubts about [Wahoo] now. I'm not going to stop wearing my gear, but that guy in redface, that paints a certain picture of the pro-Wahoo crowd, and I definitely don't want to be associated with that aspect of it."

Prediction for Wahoo's future: "I'm sort of resigned to the fact that Wahoo will be completely phased out, except maybe as a throwback. That makes me sad because I'm a traditionalist, and I don't like change. And it's a logo that I've embraced. But I think we'll always see some people at Indians games with a Wahoo hat."

Greg Vlosich

Age: 30

Occupation: Co-owner of the creative design firm that launched the "Keep the Chief" T-shirt in early March

Cleveland connection: Grew up in Lakewood, just outside of Cleveland, and still lives there

Level of Indians devotion: "Total diehard. I have lots of Indians caps."

Feelings about Chief Wahoo: "It's something that's been a part of our tradition. It was meant as a tribute."

Feelings about the block "C" logo: "I don't mind it, but I think it's kind of plain. The Wahoo logo is one of the most unique and identifiable in all of sports. And it's one of the few cap logos that's still a logo, not just a letter."

Feelings about the Wahoo controversy: "I think it's such a small minority of people who are against the logo, so I don't think it's actually much of a split. Honestly, I think the coolest thing -- and this is an area where I'd like to be more educated as well -- would be if someone would go to some reservations and really see what Native Americans think of Chief Wahoo. Because we've heard that people out there like to wear it, they're proud of it. But obviously, there are some people who are offended by it. It would be good to know more about what they think. And if 95 percent of them -- or even 50 percent -- were absolutely outraged, then I would maybe, you know, at least check my opinion. But I think it's such a small minority."

How did the "Keep the Chief" T-shirt come about? "We brainstormed, and my dad said, 'We have to do something for the Chief.' We didn't do this to make a major political statement or stir anything up. We're just supporting a logo that's been part of Cleveland tradition for 60 years. We asked some of the people we're friends with at sports radio stations, and they said, 'We love it, dude, you've gotta do it. People will eat it up.'"

Do criticisms of Wahoo make you feel like you personally are under attack? "Yeah, I do. I get [the controversy around] 'Redskins,' I get that it's offensive. But this is 'Indians.' It was meant as a tribute. If you can't do a caricature -- I mean, any logo you look at is a caricature. I hate that all of a sudden now you hear these local politicians now saying that Wahoo is bad for Cleveland, or a black eye for Cleveland. That seems kind of crazy to me."

If you dislike a team's logo, does that make you a bad fan? "Yes and no. I think you're a fan of the team more than the logo. Speaking as a designer, I've seen some bad logos out there, but that doesn't mean those teams have bad fan bases."

Feelings about the de-Chiefers: "That's their opinion, and that's fine. If I saw them, I might say to them, 'Why'd you get that jersey or cap in the first place? And now you want to de-Chief it?'"

Which is stronger -- your shared bond with de-Chiefers as Indians fans, or your disagreement over the logo? "I think it's more the bond we share as fans of the team, and also in support of our city. Most of the people living here have never seen a championship, but they're still the most passionate fans around. And that's what we share -- the heartbreak, the passion. That's stronger than any logo. To be honest with you, if you asked most Cleveland people 'Would you change the logo if it guaranteed a championship?' that would be a hard decision. Even me, I think I'd take the championship."

Feelings about last Friday's encounter between Pedro Rodriguez and Robert Roche: "I thought, 'That's terrible, that makes us look bad.' I don't know what was said, but it looked like the whole thing was in poor taste. I don't condone that in any way, at least how it looked."

Prediction for Wahoo's future: "I think the team will continue to go their way of slowly de-emphasizing the Wahoo logo, but I don't think they'll ever get rid of it completely. I'll tell you this, though: If they change the logo, we want to be the ones to design the new one."

It's good to see that there was consensus, even if only among this small grouping, that what unites the pro- and anti-Wahoo camps is stronger than what divides them, which is pretty much what the de-Chiefers had said as well. It's also surprising to hear the pro-Wahoo fans so resigned to the notion that the Chief is on his way out. They seem less defiant than glumly accepting. I hadn't expected that.

One thing is certain: This issue isn't going away. The de-Chiefers continue to protest the logo and the pro-Chiefers continue to support it. So the two sides are going to have to live with each other, at least for a while. Judging by this admittedly small sample size, it looks like they may be able to agree to disagree -- as long as none of them breaks out the red face paint.

Paul Lukas has never painted his face for a sporting event (or for anything else). 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.