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Issues Surrounding Chief Wahoo and Other Racial Caricatures Used in Sports

Lifestyle & Opinion

How the debate over the use of controversial caricatures for sports logos and mascots can be solved

By Nathan Perry

(St. Petersburg College, Clearwater, Florida)         

Racial caricatures have been used as both the logos and mascots for sports teams since the 1800’s and should continue to be the face of collegiate athletic teams and professional sports franchises. Up until the past few decades, there has never been a very large issue regarding these caricatures and their use as team logos and mascots.

Granted, these caricatures were put in place during a time when racial issues and segregation were a very prominent part of U.S. society and culture, there is still no direct correlation between the caricatures and the racist perspectives many people shared during that time. While some of the mascots and logos today may still illustrate some obvious racist physical traits, there is no need to completely get rid of them for being deemed “racially insensitive”. Rather, there should be a compromise made between all parties involved so that the team names, logos, and mascots can still retain the history of that franchise’s success and not be viewed by the public as offensive.

The Cleveland Indian’s mascot/logo Chief Wahoo, The Florida State University athletics logo, and the Washington Redskins team name and logo, are three of the current highly debated topics regarding racially insensitive caricatures. All three of these caricatures have been used to represent their respective sports teams for almost 100 years and contain a large amount of history behind each. Chief Wahoo, the mascot and logo for Cleveland’s professional baseball team the Indians, was first used in 1946 and has remained ever since.

In 1933 the Boston Braves changed their name to the Boston Redskins, and throughout migration to various other locations, have retained the name. Shortly afterwards the team used the image of a Native American warrior as their team logo on helmets and merchandise, which also stuck.

In 1947, by a vote amongst the students of Florida State University, their sports teams were named the Seminoles. During the early 1970’s, the university adopted their logo of a shouting Seminole tribesmen to represent their student athletics. It is apparent that these racial caricatures, team names, and mascots were adopted by a means of comradery and respect for the Native American people, not out of spite or racial hatred.

In fact, the Seminole tribe, its people, and those of Seminole ancestry actually support the use of the name “Seminole” for the university’s athletic teams. The Seminole logos and team name used by Florida State University is officially sanctioned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Many members of the Seminole tribe give financial support to the school for its education and athletic programs. The people of the Seminole Tribe stated that they feel a strong sense of pride and honor that the college has chosen them to represent the university and its athletics.

There have been multiple variations of logos used by these three sports teams that have been reinvented to portray the caricatures in a better light. Many sports teams that use racial caricatures as team logos and mascots have recognized that their former caricatures could be seen as offensive to certain ethnicities and races and used this opportunity to redesign their logos to help comfort those offended.

For example, the original Chief Wahoo illustration depicted a Native American with a yellow skin tone and an oversized nose. In 1951, the organization agreed that there was a need to change the caricature because it contained major racist physical properties. A similar Chief Wahoo was drawn but this caricature instead had a red skin color and a proportionately sized nose that could not be connected to any racist physical traits.

This updated Chief Wahoo caricature has been used by the baseball team ever since, but was recently determined by the Dolan Family, owners of the Cleveland Indians franchise, along with the president of Major League Baseball, as too controversial and will no longer be represented on the team’s uniforms following the 2018 season. However, Chief Wahoo will still be licensed by the MLB and available for merchandise purchase by the Cleveland Indians, which contradicts everything this recent action stands for, and is unfair to the loyal sports fans of the organization.

The Florida State University more recently changed their logo in 2014, which showed a revamped Seminole head with a significantly smaller nose and more realistic facial features. The previous logo, which began in 1971, was considered by many as too cartoonish of a caricature and portrayed the members of the Seminole tribe in a negative way.

These are perfect examples of the kinds of changes that need to be made to these caricatures in order to preserve them and their history to the organizations. There needs to be more compromises made so the logos of these sports teams, which contain so much history and value to the fans, players, and teams, can still remain while not offending those races and ethnicities they portray.

The Washington Redskins logo is one of the few sports team images that has not been impacted by significant redesign. The Redskins logo for the franchise, as well as the logo on their helmets, contains a more realistic portrayal of a Native American tribe member. However, this is not to say that it hasn’t had its fair share of controversy over the years. The image of the Native American warrior contains an oversized nose as well, along with a very dark skin tone, which has led to a large amount of debate over whether it is an offensive depiction of the Native American people.

Interestingly, the major cause for concern regarding the Washington Redskins organization is not so much the logo as the same itself. The Cleveland Indians and the Florida State Seminoles are two organizations that have names which actually pertain to Native American culture. The Seminoles were a native tribe of Florida in the 1900’s, and “Indian” is a term used throughout U.S. history to acknowledge those native people who lived in the United States before European expedition.

“Redskins” however, is widely considered by those in the Native American community, as well as the American public, as extremely offensive and derogatory. The term “redskin” was coined by the Caucasian U.S. population in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s as a way of referring to Native American people. This slang term was often not one of love and was commonly used to make fun of Native Americans, which offended them because of the color of their skin. This is most easily relatable to African Americans in the United States and the racist taunts they receive because of the color of their skin.

There have been many different polls taken over the years to determine whether the Native American Community is offended by these caricatures, mascots, and team names. These polls are used to see how the public, especially Native Americans, view the caricatures and if the portrayals of Native American tribe members are considered racially insensitive.

A public opinion poll was given in 2004 regarding the Washington Redskins name, and the results were rather interesting. 90% of those who took the survey, all of which were of Native American descent, answered that they were not offended by the professional football team’s use of “redskin” as their team name. The Washington Post released the results of another survey taken in 2016, in which 90% of the 504 Native American participants also stated that they were not offended by the professional football team’s name.

In 2002, results of a poll were released by Sports Illustrated magazine, which stunned many of the readers. The overall consensus was that both Native Americans and the entirety of the U.S. sports fan base did not find Native American related caricatures, logos, mascots, and team names as offensive.

These illustrations, depictions, and team names represent the fans of their organization, the players, and those who support the franchise. There is far too much blood, sweat, tears, and emotional investment put into these sports teams to have their history stripped of them because of a lack of communication and compromise.

There are many different ways that the organizations can reach out to those of the Native American community, as well as the general public, and consult them regarding changes that need to be made. Polls should be taken to determine what parts of the caricature or logo are considered offensive, and what parts can remain. Once a compromise has been reached, the caricatures can be redrawn in multiple different ways and then a verdict will determine what logo will please everyone. Perhaps the skin tone of these caricatures will change, or maybe the facial features. Regardless of what methods are used, there can always be a compromise to this issue at hand, and all parties involved will be content with the final product.

Header photo US News & World Report.


References

Chief Wahoo. (2018, April 16). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_Wahoo

Cleveland Indians name and logo controversy. (2018, April 11). Retrieved April 17, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Indians_name_and_logo_controversy

Florida State Seminoles. (2018, April 17). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_State_Seminoles

Poll: NE Ohioans overwhelmingly prefer Cleveland Indians’ ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo over ‘Block C’. (2018, March 28). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from http://www.wkyc.com/article/sports/mlb/indians/poll-ne-ohioans-overwhelmingly-prefer-cleveland-indians-chief-wahoo-logo-over-block-c/95-532791104

Staff, T. (2014, April 04). FSU explains logo change; uniforms reportedly next. Retrieved April 17, 2018, from http://www.tbo.com/sports/colleges/fsu-explains-logo-change-uniforms-reportedly-next-20140404/

Washington Redskins. (2018, April 17). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Redskins

 

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