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Back in December of 2020, it was finally announced that the Cleveland Indians would eventually be known as the Cleveland… something else. The name was yet to be worked out, but we were all assured that the organization had finally taken that next step and decided to drop the old moniker that had fostered a racist culture around the team, one that used the excuse of “honoring” Native Americans as justification for its existence.
Now, we finally know what that new name is. It will take until 2022 for Cleveland to actually make the switch to become the Cleveland Guardians — sure, it’s not feasible for them to make a dramatic, mid-season wardrobe and name change, but it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t have been fun to see them try it — but it’s happening. There’s a new logo and people from outside of Cleveland complaining that the name isn’t good enough for them and everything. I’ll let Scott Hines handle that particular angle, other than saying that more sports team names should be inspired by Lord of the Rings-ass statues that exist in real life, even if it means we need to build more statues like that now to prepare us for future name changes.
The name change is an obvious good, of course, and was the only way to begin to dismantle the hostile, racist culture having a baseball team named “Indians” created. It’s also still kind of stunning that it’s even happening, given the relative safety that existed in being called the Indians compared to what Washington’s NFL team used to go by. As I said back in December:
This is long overdue, but as it was back when Washington became Football Team, it’s just a start. What changing the name will accomplish, more than anything, is changing the culture of Cleveland’s baseball fans for the better. It will no longer be a culture of appropriation, of “honoring” Native Americans by slapping on red face and headdresses. It’s also a more significant step, in some ways, than what Washington did: again, that was an NFL team using a literal slur for Native Americans as a name. It was huge and significant and all that for that reason, and the importance of it is not being discounted here. The point is that “Cleveland Indians” is far less obviously a problem, in comparison to what Washington was going by for decades and somehow still as recently as early 2020, and yet, Cleveland is finally listening and bringing about the change in culture that’s necessary to avoid the racism that has surrounded them not so much because of what’s in their team’s name, but because of it’s very existence and what it stands for to non-Native Americans.
Of course, there are still some lingering issues to resolve. It was revealed almost immediately after the announcement that a name change would happen that the now-Guardians would still be selling Chief Wahoo merchandise in order to protect their trademarks. That wasn’t a surprise, considering that even after Wahoo was no longer part of the team’s branding — a move made to appease MLB in order to get the 2019 All-Star Game for Cleveland — there was still merchandise available locally featuring the racist caricature. It wasn’t very defensible then, and it’s certainly not defensible now, as I wrote at the time:
What is the reason to protect the trademark? Is Cleveland planning for a 2040 retro uniform reveal where they wear uniforms they publicly admitted were racist 20 years before? Are they afraid they won’t have a second chance to be able to put Chief Wahoo on a themed MLB hat honoring the same United States military that helped murder and round up Native Americans over the centuries?
Why does Wahoo merch need to still be produced by and for Major League Baseball and Cleveland when there will no longer be a Cleveland Indians baseball club that it represents? The current argument is that some third-party is going to make Chief Wahoo apparel instead, should the trademark be allowed to expire, but this just raises yet another question: Who gives a fuck? Some comparatively insignificant operation might hypothetically make some racist merchandise featuring a racist logo for a team identity that no longer exists because again, racist, so the plan to combat that is to… definitely make and sell merchandise featuring a logo that the organization itself admits needs to be changed? How does that solve anything?
If Cleveland is going to continue to sell Wahoo merchandise in order to protect the trademark, then they need to ban that merch itself from Progressive Field. If you show up wearing it, you need to change, or leave, if you refuse to do that. Obviously, the answer is that they shouldn’t be making the merch at all, but if it’s going to be available to whatever racists want to keep holding on to the past, then don’t let them wear it into the stadium. Plenty of people happy with the new Guardians branding will be happy to take the open seats, should these folks choose being racist over a name change.
Of course, Cleveland’s MLB club is still light years ahead of where the Braves are as far as name changes and attempts to change the culture surrounding the team. The Braves even have an easy out that would be at least as popular locally as “Guardians,” and far more accepted nationally, were they to rename themselves the Hammers, after Henry Aaron. It’s possible that Atlanta, feeling pressure following Cleveland actually going through with the name change, finally starts to take this whole rebranding away from being a hub of anti-Native racism thing seriously, and we end up with the Hammers or something else in MLB within the next few years.
Or, they continue to tell us that they know their name has created a racist culture around the team, and don’t worry, they’re having conversations about it, conversations that won’t resolve themselves until after the heat death of the universe. It’s one or the other, at least, we’ve narrowed it down that much.