By Sean Chase
Paul Dolan, owner of the Cleveland Indians, has decided to change the team’s racially insensitive name, which was adopted in 1915, after the 2021 season.
On Monday, after months of deliberation, Dolan announced the team had decided to make the change, in hopes of creating a more inclusive environment throughout Cleveland and for fans at Progressive Field.
“Today’s decision is the result of a process that began in June, following our public commitment to take a leadership role in helping address many of the social challenges affecting our community and to support the underserved and under-represented groups in Greater Cleveland,” said Dolan, in a letter to the fans. “After we made this commitment, I, and many others across the organization, spent time reflecting on the role our franchise plays in the community at large and our responsibilities as community leaders inside our organization. As a result, in July, the organization announced we would begin a process of listening, learning, and then acting on the best path forward relative to our team name.”
Historically, the Cleveland’s baseball team has pushed back against racial barriers in their sport, and that history played a role in helping Dolan decide to move forward with this process.
“Ultimately, we found our organization is at its best when we can unify our community and bring people together around our shared interest in our home team – and we believe a new name will allow us to do this more fully,” said Dolan, in a letter to fans. “We often celebrate being the first team in the American League to have an African American player in Larry Doby and the first African American manager in Frank Robinson. These forward-thinking acts by our predecessors have helped shape our team and community, and today’s decision helps us continue to live up to these high standards and expectations.”
In July, the Washington Football Team became the first team to abandon their racially insensitive name. When they dropped the “Redskins” moniker after pressure from the community. However, changes weren’t made until Fredrick Smith, CEO of FedEx and minority stakeholder of the WFT, decided to sell his share if changes weren’t made.
Washington had to scramble to save face in their community, and due to poor planning, have decided to stick with the ‘Football Team’ name going forward. Dolan wants to avoid rushing the process and thus experiencing a similar outcome in Cleveland.
“We don’t want to be the Cleveland Baseball Team or some other interim name,” said Dolan, to the Associated Press, “The new name will hopefully take us through multiple centuries.”
Instead of a temporary fix, Dolan wants to provide a permanent solution and he believes a multi-phase process will provide the right avenue for change.
“Our decision to change the current name is phase one of a multi-phased process,” said Dolan. “Future decisions, including the new name and brand development, are complex and will take time. We believe our new name will take us into the future and proudly represent this storied franchise for decades and generations to come. In light of the importance, we will not rush these decisions.”
The team is often referred to simply as the ‘Tribe,’ but Dolan has expressed a desire to step away from any names that reference Native American culture.
“We are not going to take a half-step away from the Indians,” said Dolan, to the Associated Press. “The new name, and I do not know what it is, will not be a name that has Native American themes or connotations to it.”
While the changes won’t be instantaneous, the decision has received support from Native American organizations in Cleveland.
“The team made a genuine effort to listen and learn,” said Cynthia Connolly, executive board member of the Lake Erie Native American Council in the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition, to the Associated Press. “We hope this serves as a blueprint for other professional teams and the 200-plus high school teams in the Cleveland area. If there is a school or team that truly cares about fighting racism, these mascots cannot coexist.”
Ryan Helsey, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, has a different take on the use of Native American symbology in sports, specifically touching on the demeaning nature of the tomahawk chop.
“They are a lot more than that,” said Helsey, to the USA Today. “It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that.”
Helsey’s comments are especially important as a debate has, once again, erupted around the exploitation of Native American symbols in Major League Baseball. This time, around a team who has publicly expressed no desire to change their logo, the Atlanta Braves.
The day after Cleveland made their decision public, Georgia Senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue took to Twitter to speak out against the possibility of Atlanta parting with the Braves moniker.
“We adamantly oppose any effort to rename the Atlanta Braves, one of our state’s most storied and successful sports franchises,” they said Monday, in a prepared statement covered by CBS News. “Not only are the Braves a Georgia institution – with a history spanning 54 years in Atlanta – they’re an American institution.”
Since the Senators’ comments emerged, the Atlanta Braves have begun to sell T-shirts with proceeds going to preserving and raising awareness for the written language of the Cherokee Nation, Syllabary.
While professional teams are delaying change, the rebranding process is already underway for multiple public school system’s in Michigan with offensive names and mascots.
In March, the Paw Paw school district revealed plans to drop the Redskins name, after a century of use. By July, after holding a student vote, they landed on the Red Wolves. Saugatuck began the process of separating from their offensive name in August, as they announced plans to have a new name in place by the start of 2021.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights issued a report on the culturally insensitive names found throughout Michigan high schools in 2013. Based on their research, there are more than 30 schools currently with Native American mascots.