When criticism of the use of Native American imagery and names for sports teams escalated in recent years, Washington Redskins fans could always point to the Cleveland Indians and shrug, ‘”At least we don’t have Chief Wahoo.”
That argument lost a little potency Monday when the Indians announced the franchise, under pressure from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is removing the buck-toothed caricature of a Native American from team uniforms beginning in 2019.
The Redskins have faced much of the same criticism as the Indians, and with Cleveland moving to further downplay Chief Wahoo, pressure on Washington owner Dan Snyder to change the team name, which some contend is racist, is likely to intensify.
Snyder and the Redskins, who declined comment on the Cleveland action Monday, have a long history of defending the name. Snyder famously told USA Today in 2013 the team would never — “you can use the caps, NEVER” — change it.
The Redskins argue their name and logo both honor Native Americans. They have also pointed to polls that show support from the general public, and specifically Native Americans. In 2016, the Washington Post ran a poll that found 90 percent of Native Americans aren’t offended by the team name.
Still, activists have targeted the Redskins for years.
In December, Change the Mascot released a campaign that falsely declared the Redskins were “rebranding” as the “Washington Redhawks.”
The group drew some criticism for mocking up websites that looked eerily similar to ESPN, Sports Illustrated and others, but defended the hoax by saying it was to show how easily the name could be changed.
At the time, the Redskins responded with a statement, saying, “The name of the team is the Washington Redskins and will remain that for the future.”
On Monday, Change the Mascot again released a statement urging the Redskins to learn from the baseball team.
“Cleveland’s decision should finally compel the Washington football team to make the same honorable decision,” said Change the Mascot leader Ray Halbritter.
“For too long, people of color have been stereotyped with these kinds of hurtful symbols — and no symbol is more hurtful than the football team in the nation’s capital using a dictionary-defined racial slur as its team name.”
The Redskins have faced some political pressure in recent years over the name. In 2014, 50 senators (48 Democrats, two independents) sent NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a letter urging him to force the Redskins to change their name.
Redskins president Bruce Allen, responding to then-Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, defended both the name and logo, which he said, was was specifically designed by Native Americans.
Goodell has echoed talking points from the Redskins when addressing the issue, namely “Redskins” was intended to honor Native Americans. In 2015, Goodell said before the NFL draft that the Redskins name was something the NFL “was proud of.”
MLB, as of Monday, seems to be charting a different path. In a statement, Manfred said “Major League Baseball is committed to building a culture of diversity and inclusion throughout the game,” and the logo “is no longer appropriate for on-field use.”
The Indians gradually began phasing out the Wahoo logo in 2014, when they introduced a new primary logo that featured a “C” for Cleveland. Still, the team came under fire for displaying Chief Wahoo on uniforms and at their ballpark, Progressive Field — especially when the Indians made the World Series in 2016.
Cleveland will retain the Chief Wahoo trademark and will still be permitted to sell merchandise featuring the logo outside the stadium and in Cleveland. MLB, according to the New York Times, won’t have any of the gear featured on its website.
For now, the Redskins don’t have any plans to change either their name or logo.
Last year, the team scored a big legal victory when the Supreme Court declared the Redskins name cannot be stripped of trademark protection just because some find it offensive.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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