Native American group plans to file a $9 billion lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians over Chief Wahoo

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I think my record on the Chief Wahoo thing is pretty clear by now. I’m quite obviously not a fan. But there’s a big, big difference between thinking something is offensive and should be banished to history and thinking that thing actually entitles people to billions of dollars in legal damages. Some folks to whom I’d otherwise be sympathetic are going to learn that pretty quickly.

From Paul Kiska at ABC5 in Cleveland, brought to our attention by Big League Stew:

Robert Roche is the director of the American Indian Education Center and one of the plaintiffs planing to file a federal lawsuit in late July against the Cleveland Indians. The group says the team’s name and the Chief Wahoo logo are racist. The group wants a lot of money to help Native Americans with education, job training and housing.

“We’re going to be asking for $9 billion and we’re basing it on a hundred years of disparity, racism, exploitation and profiteering,” Roche said.

Normally it’s folks who support things like Chief Wahoo or the Redskins name who fail to grasp what does and what does not violate one’s rights. One need only search “Redskins” and “freedom of speech” to get a taste of that sort of baloney. Here, however, Roche and the American Indian Education Center are the ones who are missing the point of how things work in this country.

The Cleveland Indians are a private corporation. They, like any other private citizen, can be as offensive as they want to be. They can do more than put a Wahoo patch on their caps and jerseys, in fact! They could have a “We really, really hate Native Americans Day” at Progressive Field and hand out racist literature stamped with “The Cleveland Indians heartily endorse this message because, oh my god, we really hate racial minorities.” Now, I know some people who work for the Indians and know they wouldn’t choose to do that, but legally speaking, they totally could. That sort of freedom — and the corresponding freedom of baseball fans all over to boycott/ostracize them into the Stone Age if they did — is one of the beauties of America.

But do you know who could sue the Indians if they did that? No one. Well, some employees could based on a hostile work environment theory. And Major League Baseball could do whatever it wanted to up to and including any litigation it might choose that is consistent with the team’s and the league’s franchise agreement. But ordinary citizens couldn’t. They don’t have any more right to sue the Indians over Chief Wahoo than they’d have to sue the organizers of a Klan march on the statehouse, a jackwagon yelling things at people on a street corner or your racist uncle who had too many beers last Memorial Day and decided to tell you what he really thinks of that ethnic minority family who moved in down the street. Maybe those folks have some unpopular views, but our legal system protects their rights for good reason.

Of course Robert Roche and the American Indian Education Center likely know this. And I presume they are merely seeking out some headlines in order to draw attention to their cause. But ultimately this sort of stunt is counterproductive as a means of swaying public opinion. A lot of people hate Chief Wahoo and a lot of people love him. But a lot MORE people hate lawyers and litigiousness and are immediately suspect of someone who files — or, in this case, threatens to file — lawsuits against their beloved institutions. Especially ones with little if any legal merit.

Put differently: you’re not helping, dudes. Keep up the protests and the public pressure. Even think about narrow, focused legal action with actual merit such as the trademark challenge the Redskins just lost. But cut it out with the billion dollar damage claims.

The Padres owners try to explain why they aren’t spending money

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There was an interesting article in the San Diego Union-Tribune over the weekend about the Padres, their owners and their finances.

The article purports to be a rare look into the finances of a big league club. And yes, the owners opened their books, to a degree, to the writer of the story, talked about the team’s financial position, its debt and its approach to team payroll, past, present and future. The upshot: the team has had lots of debt, has had to do a lot of work to get out of that situation and now, with some restructuring out of the way, the club looks forward to spending more on players. Eventually. Like, maybe in 2020 or 2021.

On the one hand, yes, it’s actually got some good information in there! Some details about team finances you don’t often see. Which is totally cool as far as that goes. The problem is that the article doesn’t go nearly as far as it may seem and, in the end, is just a far more elaborate than usual excuse from a team about its failure to spend money.

The tell here comes from what is not mentioned as opposed to what is. For example, while it talks about how much is being spent on various things — baseball salaries, operating, marketing, etc. — nowhere does it talk about the owners’ own take. Rather, it leaves you with the impression that the owners haven’t seen a dime from the team in the several years that they’ve owned it. Color me extraordinarily skeptical about that. As we’ve seen with other clubs — most notably the Marlins, but most do it — broad categories such as “baseball operations” or “non baseball operations” often include substantial payments to owners in less-than-obvious line items. Payments to LLCs and partnerships for “consulting” or “management fees” or what have you. Do the Padres have similar expenditures? We can’t tell from this article, but it’s telling to me that they have spent about as much on front office/miscellaneous baseball ops stuff as player salaries over the past several years. A lot of that has been at building a strong minor league development system, but I’m guessing not all.

Similarly, there is an awfully large portion of the article aimed at telling the tale of the clubs’ massive debt and its restructuring. Yes, debt service can be a killer for liquidity, but it doesn’t really talk too much about the debt for its own sake. Such as the fact that (a) the current owners knew full-well of the debt they were inheriting from the previous owner, John Moores, when they bought the team; and (b) that by assuming the debt, their purchase price for the team was lowered, as it always will be in transactions that involve a lot of debt-assumption. The current owners have had the team since 2012. I don’t recall them telling the public then that there would be a near decade’s worth of swimming against the current of debt before they started paying for players. That’s never been in the season ticket brochure.

It’s also worth noting that, for as much as the debt restructuring is talked up in the story, it is saving the Padres only $8 million a year. They’ve been at least $60 million below the luxury tax threshold for several years now. It’s more than the club’s debt keeping them from spending money. It’s largely been a choice.

Again, none of which is to say that the article is not interesting in its own right. It certainly is. There is certainly more information here than one typically sees in an article about a team’s finances. But it is just partial information. Moreover, it seems to be aimed at justifying another year or two of non-contention to fans without satisfactorily explaining all of the many years of non-contention which preceded it. The Padres famously went all-in and spent some money on players in 2015. Why did that make sense then if this debt problem has been there all along? Why did they give Eric Hosmer over $100 million last year? The article wants to portray ownership as sober and responsible and prudent and use that to explain why the Padres have stunk on ice for a good long time, but it is not very convincing in communicating some consistent, rational thread from ownership.

That all of this comes at a time when clubs are being criticized for not spending money is no accident, I suspect. As such, I am choosing to read the piece for some interesting information it conveys while understanding that it has a pretty significant P.R. component to it as well.