Major League Baseball continues to waffle on Chief Wahoo

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World Series fever is gripping Cleveland, but an American Indian organization based in Cleveland is calling for protest. Of course such protests have taken place for years, with the Cleveland American Indian Movement and others referring to Chief Wahoo as a “symbol of genocide” while simultaneously noting its similarity to blackface “Sambo” characters and other racist imagery that has long since been banished from polite society. I’m assuming that the protesters are, as they usually are, being ignored by Indians fans as they make their way to the gates of Progressive Field. Fans like this one.

Meanwhile, Wahoo remains, institutionalized by the Cleveland Indians and Major League Baseball in ways those other racist symbols have not been endorsed by any respectable organizations for decades.

Last week I contacted Major League Baseball about the matter, asking directly whether MLB believes Chief Wahoo to be a racist symbol and, if so, how MLB can continue to allow the Indians to use it. It was a productive conversation, actually. I was told — quite accurately — that MLB is not free to act unilaterally on all of this, and that matters affecting only one club and its identity in its own market are not the sorts of things the league readily or easily addresses. That makes perfect sense, and I accept that, but I nonetheless asked for MLB to take a position on it one way or the other. Ultimately, I noted that it was reasonable to wait for Commissioner Manfred to speak on the matter during the World Series, as he would surely be asked about it.

Via Deadspin I see that, yesterday, Manfred was asked about it on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show. Here is what he said:

Well, I understand that particular logo is offensive to some people, and I understand why. On the other side of the coin, you have a lot of fans that have history and are invested in the symbols of the Indians. I think that after the World Series, at an appropriate point in time, Mr. [Larry] Dolan and I have agreed we’ll have a conversation about what should happen with that particular logo going forward.

It’s nice that Commissioner Manfred can see both sides of a controversial issue, and its quite nice that the league, apparently, plans to meet with Indians ownership about the logo.

However, in order to maintain baseball’s neutral stance — which it clearly seems to wish to — Commissioner Manfred owes it to us to explain why he believes both sides have merit. If he understands that one side of the debate sees Chief Wahoo as a racist symbol, and he understands those justifications, what are the possible justifications of the pro-racist symbol side? It can’t just be history and tradition, as he states here, as that sort of justification did not preserve Sambo, blackface and other racist symbols that have been cast into the dustbin of history. Nor would I ever expect Manfred to say that it’s OK for offensive symbols to persist by virtue of that history and the “investment” of their proponents. People were invested in the color line too.

I’ll once again grant that Major League Baseball does not have the power to unilaterally ban the Indians from using Chief Wahoo as their symbol, but I do not believe that it should be given a pass for sitting on the fence on the matter.

If the league truly wishes to change Mr. Dolan’s stance with respect to Chief Wahoo, and if it does not have the institutional power to order a change, must it not marshall public opinion? Must it not persuade Mr. Dolan to change in ways that 40+ years of protests have not? Must it not make the case against Cheif Wahoo publicly in order to persuade the people who are still invested in it that their investment will not continue pay dividends?

I believe it must. And I believe that, to do so, Major League Baseball should clearly and unequivocaly state its position on the matter. I believe that it must answer these questions rather than continue to claim that both sides in an argument over racist imagery have merit:

1. Does Major League Baseball believe Chief Wahoo to be a racist caricature?
2. If not, why not?
3. If so, does MLB approve of a club using a racist caricature and if so why?
4. If MLB does not approve, what does MLB plan to do about getting the Indians to cease using Wahoo?

I emailed those questions directly to Rob Manfred this morning. I will post an update if and when those questions are answered.