I suppose that since this issue has reared its head again, I should say something.
Back at the beginning of the season, I wrote on this site that the Indians should consider a name change. Since then, there has been a clamor around the Washington Redskins. Even the president, who probably has better things to do, has weighed in that the Redskins nickname should be changed. This has led some, including local media, to discuss whether the Indians’ nickname is similarly offensive.
My original point still stands. Social conventions are evolving in such a way that the Indians are essentially left with a choice between changing their name now or waiting twenty years and doing it when the public pressure is overwhelming. If they wait, they will be faced with ever larger public protest, boycotts, and ridicule while they dither. Whether this is fair or morally appropriate is irrelevant. The Indians are an organization that depends heavily on public goodwill in order to be profitable and even to win championships.
Any marketing guru will tell you that the key to maintaining goodwill is to control the message. As time goes on, the Indians will spend more and more time defending the presence of Chief Wahoo when they would rather be talking about Danny Salazar, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor. Eventually, when you spend enough time saying you are not a bigot, people begin to assume that you are.
Just as our generation is more tolerant and sensitive than our parents, our children will be more sensitive and tolerant than we are. Most children in school today are being taught that the only appropriate use of the term Indian is in reference to people from India, and that the people who were here before European settlers arrived should be referred to as Native Americans. When they get old enough to buy baseball tickets, they will be less likely than we are to take their children to a ballgame if it means walking past a racial stereotype on their way into the stadium. As that mindset percolates for another generation, use of the name Indians will seem less and less appropriate.
As I said, whether these trends make sense to you is meaningless. At its root, this is a marketing decision and the Indians should make it according to how they can minimize the negative publicity. The fact is that the Indians will face repercussions whatever they do.
At Miami (Ohio) University, you still see people wearing Redskins attire in protest of a name change that happened decades ago. Whenever the Indians change their name, there will be those who criticize them for caving to pressure and being too politically correct. There will be a time, though, when they will take a bigger hit for keeping the name than for giving it up, and that hit will be financial as well as bad publicity. In my opinion, that point is not too far off.
As an initial gesture, to indicate that they “get” it, the Indians should begin phasing Chief Wahoo out of their marketing program as soon as is practical. Whatever case can be made that the name Indians is a tribute to Native Americans is undermined when a caricature is used as the symbol for that tribute. Unfortunately, most of the alternatives that the Indians have come up with are rather lame. I seldom see fans wearing caps with the red block C, so I assume that sales based on that symbol have been less than stellar.
However, they should be able to overcome this. Most of the apparel worn by Tigers fans does not contain an actual tiger, but rather has the elaborate “D” that has been on their caps and uniforms forever (Editor’s Note: As a uniform nerd, I would like to point out the proper term for the Detroit logo is the “Old English D”). If the Indians are serious about a marketing strategy that does not involve Chief Wahoo, they should be able to do the same. There is a possibility, though, that they will be unable to develop a marketing strategy that generates adequate revenues without involving Chief Wahoo. At that point, a new nickname will become inevitable. Because, after all, it is much easier to be sensitive and tolerant when the alternative costs more money.