If you argue about your right to offend people, you are more interested in arguing than in whether you offend people. Cleveland’s baseball fans should think about that today, with the report that their baseball team is dropping its Indians nickname. Surely there are many who are angry and a little sad, or sad and a little angry. A more caustic columnist would tell them to get over it, but your loving and tender correspondent prefers this approach: You will get over it. You’re losing a nickname. You’re not losing your team. If any city should understand the difference, it’s Cleveland.
Go watch Washington’s football team, conveniently and temporarily named the Washington Football Team. The team dropped its unbelievably offensive nickname, but it wears the same colors and represents the same city. After a while, you get used to the “W” on the helmet, and by “after a while” I mean “after one snap.” Anybody who has watched the NFL for the last few decades knows exactly which team wears burgundy and gold. Modern sports is an endless fashion show of alternate uniforms, fake retro uniforms, and real retro uniforms; Washington is more familiar in its current getups than the Packers in their throwbacks. The only weirdness to Washington games is that the team is in first place and the stands are empty.
All spectator sports are an exercise in making a bigger deal out of something than it should be. Winning shots elicit poems. Usain Bolt is an international hero for running 100 meters a couple paces ahead of the next guy. Tiger Woods’s ability to hit a ball with a stick has spawned millions of gushing words, and a disturbing number of them came from my keyboard. Kevin Cash is completely bonkers because he … hung upside down from a fighter jet? Kidnapped a family? Nope: He made a pitching change.
Hey, this is the deal that sports fans make. Once you decide you care, you put perspective in a closet and close the door. But every sports fan should be required to do an emotional accounting at least once per fiscal year, to figure out which feelings are extreme or don’t make sense. (Sports analysts should be required to do this once a month.)
Native American team nicknames and imagery offend a lot of people. This is a simple, indisputable fact. Some studies and polls on the topic were poorly designed, sometimes intentionally so. The framing of a question matters, some people are Native American by blood but not by community, and people in widely neglected groups tend to appreciate even the small recognition that comes with being asked about their identity by a pollster, skewing the results.
But even the skewed polls prove the point. If somebody said, “Here is a term that offends 20% of Black people,” would you use it to describe LeBron James? (The answer here is no.)
This summer, Washington Football team owner Daniel Snyder managed to do the right thing while looking as bad as possible, which was a vast improvement on his usual habit of doing the wrong thing while looking as bad as possible. Snyder’s decision, while essentially forced by his own business interests, changed the dynamics for any team with Native American nicknames and imagery. Snyder was their conversational firewall. They can no longer make arguments that involve the words “we’re not as bad as …” Instead, reasonable people ask: If Daniel Snyder can come to his senses, why can’t everybody else?
Shortly after Washington’s announcement, Cleveland manager Terry Francona said he favored a name change for his team: “I think it’s time to move forward.” It wasn’t his decision, but as soon as Francona said it, a change went from unthinkable to inevitable.
More will come. The simple advice for teams is to embrace it.
People change names all the time; why can’t teams? Teams have nicknames to distinguish them, to provide identities. The more I hear the words “Washington Football Team,” the more I love it. It captures football’s no-nonsense, no-cuteness soul; it says “We’re too busy kicking butt to bother with a nickname, but enjoy your little pirate flag, Tampa.” The Washington Football Team is more distinct from the other 31 teams than any nickname could be.
The Chicago Blackhawks banned fans from wearing headdresses, which might seem like progress but isn’t, really. It’s an admission that the team logo truly and justifiably bothers people. Telling people not to dress up as the team mascot because it’s offensive is like teaching them the proper way to pronounce a slur.
The Blackhawks have long prided themselves on their history, even when it did not include much winning, but they would still be Chicago’s beloved hockey team without that head on the sweater, and this is an easy fix: Chicago Black Hawks, with a soaring bird on the chest. Fans can still cheer through the anthem.
The Kansas City Chiefs are a trickier question. The team was named after mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was the Chief, but everything from the stadium name (Arrowhead) to the fans’ “war chants” is on the wrong side of the line. The Kansas City H. Roe Bartles is probably not the way to go, and there is probably a problem with naming the team after Patrick Mahomes, though I can’t think of one. Keeping the name, banning the chant and changing the logo seem like a reasonable solution. As long as Mahomes is in red and yellow, Kansas City fans should be happy.
The Atlanta Braves were once the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, and long, long ago, they were the Boston Bees. The Braves have indicated a desire to keep their name and ban the Tomahawk Chop, but this feels too much like what the Blackhawks have done: Toeing a line there is no need to toe.
Teams have worn (and sold) retro uniforms for a generation now; a 2021 World Series matchup between the Boston Bees and Cleveland Spiders would be a gift to both historians (Cleveland’s 19th-century baseball team was the Spiders) and entomologists. It would be a lot more fun than the annual clashes between the LSU Tigers and the Auburn Tigers.
Cleveland fans weathered losing James twice; losing three AFC championship games in the 1980s; and losing the 1997 and 2016 World Series in excruciating fashion. Soon it will lose Francisco Lindor. It can handle losing a nickname. Occasionally, Cleveland fans might slip and describe their baseball team by its old name, which is not ideal but understandable. Most mistakes in life can be fixed with a simple apology and a genuine attempt to do better.