This is part four in a series about the history and controversy surrounding the Cleveland Indians name and logo, Chief Wahoo. This particular article will focus on why the Indians should eliminate both Chief Wahoo and the Indians name and how they could do so.
The arguments against Chief Wahoo and the Indians name are well known and have been covered by every form of media thoroughly already, so we won't waste time talking about how the logo is racist and just take that as a given. Instead, focus will shift to the main argument for keeping the status quo, that because someone else is worse, it makes everything else ok. While there is no argument that the Washington Redskins name and the Atlanta Braves "Screaming Brave" are more offensive than the Indians and Chief Wahoo, that should not even come into play in the individual arguments about the Cleveland Indians.
Popular opinion around the country, although not in Cleveland, has shifted completely against the use of Native American representations for sports team at all. The original purpose of all these teams naming their mascots after Indians was because people feared them. Going through the original naming process of almost all sports teams, the thinking was almost always, "what would be scary?" This is why different forms of large cats (lions, tigers and jaguars), bears and pirates were common themes. In the 1800's, when the newly formed United States was at war with the Native Americans, it makes sense that Indians would be a source of fear. They were largely misunderstood and considered savages, a feeling that lasted long into the 20th century.
It is this sense that the few Native Americans remaining find offensive. In a league composed mostly of animal names, the name is essentially bringing their race down to the level of lower race. While the Braves and Redskins are more guilty of this than the Indians, their individual transgressions are irrelevant to the argument. Each is individually offensive and Cleveland needs to focus on their individual issue.
There is also the issue that if the Indians were to change the team name or logo, they would ostracize their fan base and risk ticket sales dropping even further from the already dismal numbers. There is no evidence this would happen. There haven't been any baseball teams to change names recently, but there are some very similar situations at the college level. Miami of Ohio changed from the Redskins to the Red Hawks in 1996 and eliminated their Native American based logo in 2011 and has seen no drawbacks. For different reasons, Syracuse recently changed their team names from the Orangemen to the Orange. This effected marketing little, but certainly must have allowed their women's teams to feel a little less awkward.
The real challenge in change is to find something the city can get behind. Renaming the team the Cleveland Trout using green and white as their team colors will likely bring about a similar response the newly named New Orleans Pelicans (or Akron Rubberducks). There is proof, however, that a team can make a big change in the Cleveland market and do so successfully in the recent past.
When the Cavs drafted Lebron James in 2003, the whole franchise went into an overhaul. Wanting to change the perception of the team, they no longer went by the Cavs, but used the entire Cavaliers name on their jerseys. In addition, they completely changed the color scheme from the goofy, 80's looking orange and blue to wine and gold, a much more mature combination if nothing else. This was incredibly successful for a few reasons. One, the old colors and logo were outdated. It was time for a change and the Cavaliers went through with it just in time. Quite possibly, the ultimate reason for the success was actually James, more than anything else. Had the team continued to struggle after a color and moniker change, the support would likely have remained the same, but with the Rookie of the Year and future MVP in tow the wine and gold started to appear everywhere. In the past, it seemed only the rare Mark Price jersey would appear around town, but after the change, Lebron jerseys everywhere made the transition incredibly easy.
The Indians have a similar opportunity. With the big offseason in 2012, more fans than in a decade are wearing modern Indians names on their backs. While there are still a few Ramirez, Vizquel and Thome shirts, many fans have finally moved on to wear a Swisher or Kipnis. With Francisco Lindor and Danny Salazar expecting to make big impacts in the near future, there should be quite a few great players for the fans to latch on to. If the Indians wanted to make a giant change, they could probably get away with it now as well as any other time in franchise history.
The Indians could even go a similar route to the Cavaliers and the NCAA teams that haven't had to change their names in recent years. The Florida St. Seminoles and Illinois Illini were allowed to keep their team names after the NCAA changed it's policy to not allow any Native American based names. The reasoning was that they had the backing of their home town tribes, instead of just naming their team something generic to be intimidating. The Indians could go this route and either name their team after an individual tribe, like the Penobscot (the tribe that Louis Sockalexis belonged to in Maine), or an entire group like the Iroquois or Algonquins. While there would still be some risk of this going out of fashion, eliminating Chief Wahoo and changing the name to remember a local tribe instead of the generic Indians would go a long way in changing the team perception.
The Indians have been slowly eliminating Chief Wahoo, while at the same time telling fans they are not eliminating him, in an effort to appease both sides. While this is an acceptable short term solution, the Indians have a unique marketing opportunity available right now. By making a move before being forced to (a possibility under whoever MLB's new commissioner will be), the team would look progressive to the rest of the nation and still have a chance to keep their fan base interested. The new name and logo will have to be trendy and individual to the Cleveland area to not ostracize the fans, but that should be possible with enough thought. A great opportunity was lost when the Cleveland independent hockey team took the Lake Erie Monsters name, but there are plenty of other options (besides those already listed), that would allow the Cleveland baseball team to re-brand with minimal difficulty. The team is at a crossroads right now that may not exist for another decade. If the Indians are going to make a move, it needs to happen within the next two off-seasons or will have to wait until they blow up the team and start over again.