Talking Chief Wahoo with Uni Watch
We read several sites on a daily basis and one that we find entertaining and informative is Uni Watch.
For those of you not familiar with the site, Uni Watch “Uni Watch “is a media project that deconstructs the finer points of sports uniforms in obsessive and excruciating detail. It has nothing to do with fashion — it’s about documenting and maintaining the visual history of sports design, and about minutiae fetishism as its own reward. If that concept doesn’t make sense to you, no problem — Uni Watch definitely isn’t for everyone, and there have always been people who Don’t Get It. But for those who understand the pleasures of detail obsession, programmatic classification systems, information overload, and sports history, you’ve come to the right place.”
The site was founded by Paul Lukas, a columnist for ESPN.com and a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Fortune, Gourmet, Saveur, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN The Magazine, Spin and The Financial Times, among many other publications.
So we were particularly interested when weekend editor Phil Hecken recently wrote an article announcing a contest to rebrand the Cleveland Indians, asking readers to come up with ideas for a new team name and logo to replace Chief Wahoo.
Paul also made his feelings known in an article on Friday, What Do You Mean We, Paleface?
We reached out to Paul and Phil and they were gracious enough to sit down for a virtual question and answer session about the contest and Cleveland uniforms in general.
Q: Why did you start the contest?
Phil: The contest was started at the request of a reader. Uni Watch holds several design-a-uniform contests throughout the year (on the weekends) and this suggestion came about following a discussion of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux (who also use an Indian logo) and it was suggested by a Cleveland Indians fan. Specifically, the comment (found in the March 2, 2012, comments section), by a reader who goes by JAson was as follows:
“I’ll just throw out the suggestion of a rename-the-Indians contest for weekend posts. Maybe the community could come up with a good replacement nickname then we could have a design contest to go along with the new name? Any takers??”
From there, it took off.
Q: How did you decide to include the team name (Indians) and not just Chief Wahoo?
Phil: The reader suggested “rename-the-Indians.” In addition, on March 11, 2012, I asked the readers for their thoughts on this (see the section titled Looking Ahead), and I received enough feedback that it was determined the Indians and the Redskins would be the two teams selected for the contest to rename and relogo. While I personally don’t feel the name Indians is in any way racist or derogatory, I do feel the logo is, and rather than try to “work around” the name to create a logo, for the purposes of the contest, I thought a new name and logo should be created.
Q: Opposition to Chief Wahoo is primarily national, not so much in Cleveland. Do you see that same sentiment in the comments to the contest?
Phil: You need to first understand that this has nothing to do with the cities, fans or current owners of either the Indians or the Redskins (although the owners ultimately hold the power to change the name and logos). I think the readers are divided in their opposition to Chief Wahoo, and while I don’t know that it’s 50/50, there is a clear divide. I understand a Clevelander’s attachment to the name and logo, and I can understand how he/she might view this as a personal affront – like, what is this guy from New York doing telling me what I should do or how I should feel about my team. I’d feel the same way if the Mets, Giants, Knicks or Islanders decided to name their team after a particular ethnic/racial group (particularly one against which European settlers had raged a near genocidal campaign centuries ago). To me, it doesn’t matter how the good people of Cleveland feel about the name/logo, it’s not about Cleveland, per se. Not to me, anyway. I’d feel just as strongly if the team was local and I was a fan.
Q: Do you find it odd that a Utah high school would ban using a cougar as a mascot, but images like Chief Wahoo are still in use?
Phil: There is PC and then there is decency and respect. Banning a cougar as a mascot because it happens to be the “vogue” term for an older lady who, according to Urban Dictionary is “on the ‘hunt’ for a much younger, energetic, willing-to-do-anything male,” is patently ridiculous. That is PC run amok. I don’t even think you can compare the Cougar kerfuffle with the Indians logo. It’s comparing apples and oranges.
Q: Chief Wahoo is just a caricature, so what’s the harm? It’s just sports, after all.
Phil: Well, these are just caricatures too, right? But you certainly wouldn’t put any of them on a cap or a uniform (at least I hope you wouldn’t). Similarly, you wouldn’t call a team the New York Jews for example. So, what’s the harm? Well, I suppose you could argue that a swastika is just a symbol (perhaps not a caricature), so what’s the harm in putting that on a cap or jersey? In fact, I’d argue that the caricature is actually worse than an actual depiction of a Native American. “It’s just sports” is a pretty weak defense of a symbol/logo/caricature many feel is offensive. If you don’t find the logo offensive, that’s fine and that’s your opinion. But many people do.
Q: Over the years we’ve seen colleges drop names and images related to American Indians (Stanford, Marquette, Eastern Michigan, Miami of Ohio). Why do you think pro teams haven’t followed?
Phil: Paul is probably more qualified to answer this than I, but I would hope it’s just a matter of time before pro teams follow. A lot of it probably has to do with money, although I would argue that a complete rebrand for a team, particularly if done in a way where everyone wins, could actually be a boon to the team, from a marketing standpoint. Surely even the most ardent of fans could get on board with a name and logo change if it were done well, and for the right reasons. I would hope no one is so entrenched in their love of a team because of its name or logo that a change would cause them to “desert” the team. I wonder what the push back to a name change (and it’s certainly not like the Indians haven’t changed their uniforms a dozen times over the years) that they would suddenly fail to support the team. We “root for the laundry” for sure, but it’s not always the same laundry. They wouldn’t be changing to the OHIO Indians – they’d still be Cleveland’s team, just with a new identity that respected the plight (and perhaps even honored the history) of Native Americans. To paraphrase Paul, if you steal a continent from a race of people through a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing, the least you could do is have the courtesy not to use their names and images on your uniforms.
Q: If the Indians dropped Chief Wahoo, but kept the team name, would that be any better?
Phil: “Better” is a relative term. As I stated earlier, I don’t necessarily find the name Indians to be racist or derogatory, that doesn’t mean any team (whether it be Redskins, Sioux, Seminoles, Blackhawks, Braves, etc.) should be even referencing Native Americans. If the Indians would forever ditch Chief Wahoo (and any/all images depicting Native Americans) that would be “better,” but not enough, in my opinion.
Q: Have you heard from anyone affiliated with the team about the contest?
Phil: I personally have not, although Paul may have.
Paul: I have not, no.
Q: Outside of the name/logo, what do you think of the Indians uniforms?
Phil: I actually like that they’re becoming (at least on the block CLEVELAND and INDIANS uniforms) simpler, although some would say they’re a bit boring. At this point, I’ll turn the rest of the interview over to Paul, since he’s really the uniform expert.
Paul: I think the Indians are in the middle of the MLB pack, uni-wise – not awful but not wonderful. I quite like the updates they’ve made to the home whites and navy alts for 2012, however. By eliminating the placket/collar piping and the white outlining on the chest script, they’ve created a much more stripped-down look that I think is a big improvement.
Q: What about historically? I always liked the blood red jerseys with the caveman font in the mid-’70s
Paul: The ’70s were a fun time, uni-wise. I also like the Indians’ vests from the 1960s. The team’s biggest problem over the years, at least from my perspective, is that they’ve never been able to figure out if their main color is red with blue as a secondary color, or the other way around.
Q: I like the current cream-colored uniforms the Tribe wears on Sundays. Why don’t more teams adopt cream as a color?
Paul: I like that look, too. Some teams just prefer to stick with a true white.
Q: What do you think of the Browns uniforms?
Paul: Pretty much their own category, due to the helmets. I like them, but then I tend to like old-school looks. I especially like the stripes on the white socks.
Q: Do you find it odd that a team named Browns doesn’t wear brown jerseys anymore?
Paul: That’s not accurate. They simply decided not to wear brown at home. If an opponent chooses to wear white at home, the Browns would end up wearing brown. When’s their next game against the Cowboys, for example? (Editor’s note: The Browns face the Cowboys on the road this fall).
Q: There’s been talk around Cleveland that with Nike taking over the NFL uniform business, the Browns’ classic uniforms are in for drastic change. Can you shed any light on that?
Paul: I don’t know for a fact that the Browns are sticking with their current uni design next season. But I’d be very surprised if they made major changes.
Q: What do you think of the Cavs current uniforms?
Paul: Sooooo boring. Not ugly, mind you – just boring. I really liked the LeBron-era uniforms. Too bad they’re gone.
Q: Where would you rank the Cavs black-and-blue uniforms from the 1990s on a list of all-time worst uniforms?
Paul: Near the top.
Thanks again to Paul and Phil for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk with us.