Give Chief Wahoo the Justine Sacco treatment: Fire the racist mascot

Cleveland Indians fans hold up Chief Wahoo logo signs in 2002.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press )

On Thursday, journalist Paul Lukas published a report on ESPN’s website indicating that the Cleveland Indians were relegating their “Chief Wahoo” logo to “secondary status” and would in the future use a stylized letter “C” as the graphic representation of the team.

For those out there who aren’t baseball fans, Chief Wahoo is the buck-tooth-smiled, tomato-red Indian who looks like he wandered straight out of a Nazi propaganda cartoon and whose image serves as the logo for the team. Indian County Today, the leading Native American media outlet, unsurprisingly called Wahoo’s demotion a “change in the right direction.”

Tell that to the Cleveland Indians.

Watching the aftermath of Lukas’ report has been unsettling. Indians Director of Communications Curtis Danburg went to great pains to insist to the local news, “There’s no process to eliminate Chief Wahoo.” A Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter subsequently attempted to assuage fans, “Don’t worry ... the Cleveland Indians are not looking to phase out the logo any time soon.”


These efforts to pacify fans about Wahoo’s fate are clearly disingenuous. The team has been subtly toning down his presence since 2009, when Wahoo was first replaced by a “C” on the team’s away batting helmets. Last year he was gone from the home helmets too. Recently unveiled designs show he’s nowhere to be seen in the team’s spring training jerseys; not surprising, perhaps, since the team plays in Arizona — you know, where lots of actual Indians live.

The Cleveland Indians know full well their mascot is racist, which is why all this equivocating to pacify insensitive local sensibilities is so disturbing. And the team knows this issue is much bigger than Cleveland.

We live in a hyper-connected media-saturated world, a world that loves its sports. That means every time a Cleveland shortstop makes a spectacular play, we see Chief Wahoo on “SportsCenter.” It means when Cleveland plays in a high-profile game, we see Wahoo’s face splashed across television and newspapers in the run-up to the game.

It’s worth remembering the recent case of Justine Sacco, the InterActiveCorp PR exec who put a racist joke on her Twitter feed shortly before boarding a plane to South Africa around Christmastime. By the time she landed, she was the scourge of the Internet and was fired from her job almost immediately thereafter. Her name remains a source of ridicule on the Web.

Sacco deserved to be fired; the general consensus on her story is that in 21st century America, it’s unacceptable for a company to retain the services of an overt racist as one of its public faces. How is it, then, that something as blatantly racist as Chief Wahoo can continue to survive?

Isn’t it time we give Chief Wahoo the Sacco treatment?


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Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.