ccalcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
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Getting rid of Chief Wahoo was primarily a commercial decision, not a moral one

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This afternoon’s announcement that the Cleveland Indians, at the behest of Major League Baseball, will cease wearing Chief Wahoo on their uniforms and displaying him in the ballpark was certainly welcome news. We have long railed against one of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs being represented by an unequivocally racist logo, and we are certainly happy to see Chief Wahoo being shown the door.

Having spoken to various MLB folks about Wahoo over the years, I have no doubt that people at the league office hate the logo and wish it had been eliminated long ago. Likewise, high-ranking team officials have long been on record saying they disliked Wahoo. The wish may not have been strong enough for the league or the club to actually take action before now — the league has largely kept its hands out of club matters, especially related to marketing and team identity over the years and the club has been too worried about upsetting its fan base — but there was clearly a sense in both New York and Cleveland that it was simply bad taste and bad form for Wahoo to persist for as long as he has.

What tipped the scales? Was it a final, dawning realization that enough was enough and that the racist logo could no longer stand? Nah, I don’t think so. Ultimately, the decision to get rid of Wahoo was a practical and financial one less than it was a moral or ethical one. The league and the club will deny it — they’ll come out and say it as just “the right thing to do” — but there is a decent bit of evidence to support a claim that this was primarily a business decision.

Some good evidence of this can be seen in the manner in which Wahoo is being (mostly) phased out. As today’s announcement said, the club will continue to wear the logo in 2018 rather than cease wearing it immediately. Likewise, the club will continue to sell Wahoo merchandise to fans. A lot of people I know have voiced displeasure with those facts in the past couple of hours, but they go a long way toward explaining what, in reality, motivated the club here.

Major League Baseball’s official statement on the matter does not address why the club won’t change their uniforms immediately, but I suspect they or the club will soon say that the decision to abandon Wahoo has come too close to the beginning of the season to change things and that they need a year in advance to get new caps and uniforms. In the past, clubs who have altered their uniforms have submitted uniform change plans the previous fall and have usually announced them before this point in the offseason, so perhaps there is loose precedent here, but I am not sure why, even if it was a hard and fast rule as opposed to mere convention, such a rule makes sense. Clubs roll out playoff and World Series merchandise on a moment’s notice. The 1970 Milwaukee Brewers weren’t even IN Milwaukee or CALLED the Brewers until seven days before Opening Day and they got their block-M caps and “Brewers” jerseys made in time.

I feel like a change for 2018 could be pulled off in Cleveland now if they wanted to, but they just don’t want to. Why? Because they want to research and develop and market some new caps to maximize the splash and marketing revenue that always accompanies a uniform change. Because they also want to maximize the sale of extant Wahoo-logo merchandise. I’ve heard talk about a backlash in which people who love Wahoo will flock to buy Wahoo merchandise as a point of protest, but most people want to wear what the team is wearing. If the team is not wearing Wahoo in 2018, a lot of caps and jerseys already sitting in MLB warehouses will go unsold. No on wants that, so they’ll give it a year.

The second detail — that the club will continue to sell Wahoo stuff to fans even after the club stops wearing them — is likewise a business decision. The immediate business justification will be couched in legal terms, like this:

There is truth to that. It may not require a lot of Wahoo merchandise being sold to maintain that “use in commerce” protection — certainly not so much that the club has to continue to stock a bunch of merch at its team stores or sell it in every Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Ohio like they surely will — but it will require some. The large-scale sales are probably unnecessary, however. They will continue, though, because even if the backlash factor mentioned above is not as big as some think it’ll be, there will always be some demand for the old Wahoo stuff. Just as there is a demand for brown Padres throwback merchandise, Trident-M caps in Seattle or blue-and-gold ball-in-glove caps the Brewers sell. The Indians and Major League Baseball would like to stop taking heat for wearing Chief Wahoo on the field, but they would like to continue to make money by selling Wahoo to fans as well.

Two final bits of evidence that this was more about business rather than anti-racist sentiment involve the timing of it all.

The Indians have had two really good years in a row. Their team revenue and season ticket sales are soaring, at least for them, and, after years near the bottom of MLB’s ranks in those categories, they’ve entered the middle-of-the pack. One of the big fears people with the Indians have had with respect to Wahoo is alienating fans. Well, when the tide is rising and things are going well, that fear is diminished — winning trumps everything — so now was the best time to strike, even if club officials were just as convinced of Wahoo’s ugliness three years ago as they are today.

Finally, there’s this:

I’ll file that under “totally plausible, even if no one will ever go on the record to admit it.”

The Indians and Major League Baseball are free to do whatever they’d like with Wahoo. They could’ve kept him, despite the rantings of people like me, if they so chose. There’d be no way to stop them. They could’ve punted it five more years. That they chose to stop it now, in however a limited way they are, is worth noting and worth praising, even if it’s qualified praise. A three-quarters measure is better than nothing, right?

But let us not credit the Indians or Major League Baseball with making a principled stand. If this was a principled stand against racism, they would’ve done it long ago, when it was clear to even them that Wahoo was awful. They likewise would’ve eschewed Wahoo immediately and in his entirety. They’d cease to have a financial stake in racist merchandise. If someone moved in and sold shirts with their abandoned logo, so be it, the club would say it doesn’t want that blood money. In reality, though, the club is OK with getting that money and it’ll go above and beyond what is legally necessary to continue to earn it via our old friend The Chief.

It’s a business decision that, in large part corresponds with good morals and good ethics. But it’s still a business decision. The manner in which this is being handled is the best evidence of that.