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The Empty Ethics Behind MLB's Decision to Stop Using the Racist Chief Wahoo Logo

Major League Baseball and the Indians made the right choice to stop using Chief Wahoo in 2019. But the decision had no apology, no admission of guilt and was ultimately motivated by business.

Over the course of 207 words released on Monday afternoon, Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Indians took a long overdue step toward eliminating one of the more embarrassing pieces of the game. “Commissioner Robert D. Manfred announced today that the Cleveland Indians will remove the ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo from their uniforms, effective with the 2019 season,” begins the statement from MLB, and just like that, the 70-year saga of one of sports’ most racist bits of arcana comes to an end.

For the last seven decades, Wahoo’s leering grin has stared out at fans from the caps, jerseys and shirts of both the Indians and their fans. He has changed somewhat over time—if you can believe it, the original incarnation of Wahoo was even more grotesque—but his presence has been persistent and prominent. Wahoo caps adorned the heads of the Indians as they made their World Series run in 2016, and Wahoo merchandise is up for sale all over the team’s website and in the confines of the ironically named Progressive Field. Wahoo was an inescapable part of Indians history. Now he won’t be, and that’s a good thing, no matter how long it took to get here.

There are two camps of thought on Wahoo. One is that the logo is a racist caricature that demeans an entire group of people who have been systematically oppressed for 400 years. The other consists of folks who insist that the logo isn’t racist because, well, they don’t think it is.

But there is no argument here. Wahoo is racist, full stop.

Wahoo represents what fans see as the comfortable, quiet past—one where offensive depictions of an entire race were looked upon as good clean fun. To defend Wahoo reveals how bone deep the prejudice against Native Americans is in this country. Supporting a caricature so hopelessly outdated proves how the average American either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about a historically marginalized populace. It’s simple, willful ignorance to claim Wahoo isn’t racist, but the logo still garners plenty of support among Indians fans.

The Indians have finally accepted that Wahoo should go after years of dragging their feet on his removal. But even in 2018, long past when this kind of decision should have been made, Cleveland is still trying to have it both ways. The insignia will be gone, the team pledges—but not for another year, and merchandise with Wahoo will still be sold.

On the surface, there’s no good explanation why the Indians have to wait a full year to dispose of Wahoo. The ostensible reason is the uniforms, but it’s hard to imagine that patches can’t be ripped off and more block C hats can’t be ordered in time for Opening Day. As for merchandise, the legal argument is that the franchise needs to continue using Wahoo in order to maintain the copyright; if not, any random person could snatch up the logo and create their own bootleg Wahoo gear. But as ESPN’s Sarah Spain reports, the Indians don’t have to sell Wahoo caps or shirts to keep the trademark; the team only has to show ongoing use.

It’s also worth noting that, in Major League Baseball’s statement, the word “racist” never actually appears. Wahoo is referred to as “no longer appropriate” (as if there were ever a period of time when it was or should have been), but no mention is made of why the team and league have decided that’s the case—just the acknowledgement from Indians owner Paul Dolan that he’s “ultimately in agreement” with MLB on ditching Wahoo. No comment on why Wahoo was wrong, no apology from the team or Dolan to Native Americans. Instead, both the league and Dolan go out of their way to state how they understand that Indians fans have an attachment to Wahoo, as if to say, “We get why you want to keep Wahoo, and it’s not wrong to want that.”

What the statement reveals is that this wasn’t a moral choice for the Indians despite the obvious racism that Wahoo represented; it was a financial one. For years, the team resisted entreaties from Native activists who called for Wahoo’s departure. Only when MLB got involved did Wahoo begin to disappear, and as the Cleveland Scene reports, part of the Indians’ calculus for ultimately ditching Wahoo was securing hosting rights for the 2019 All-Star Game. At no point was this choice about sensitivity, or even about right and wrong. It was about business, and so is the choice to keep selling Wahoo merchandise when the team doesn’t have to, or about keeping the logo until 2019 to placate those fans who are so dearly attached to a grinning red face and to give them a chance to celebrate and buy their racist memorabilia.

Ultimately, Wahoo will fade, consigned to history books so that future generations can look back in disbelief that we, as a people, allowed such things to exist. But this is something that should have happened long ago, and it shouldn’t be in this kind of insulting half measure, where the Indians acknowledge that something is wrong without ever accepting responsibility for it, and continue to profit off of it all the while. It’s admitting that, yes, Wahoo is a problem—but he’s a problem only because other people have said so.

“We have consistently maintained that we are cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the discussion,” Dolan says in MLB’s statement. But there never have been two sides. There’s only been the reality that Wahoo, a racist reminder of a shameful period of this nation’s history, has to go, and the people who have been most hurt by his existence deserve, if nothing else, to see him vanish overnight.

Shame on the Indians and MLB for refusing to acknowledge that Wahoo is and was wrong. And shame on them for dragging it out.