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What made the Cleveland Indians finally change their name?

Decades of protest have led to the name change.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians formally announced the team would be changing its nickname in the offseason following years of lobbying by Native American groups to remove the name, and the harmful imagery of their logo, Chief Wahoo.

Team owner Paul Dolan said in a statement that he now better understands the situation after speaking to native people, and wants fans to move forward, united, under a new nickname.

“Hearing firsthand the stories and experiences of Native American people, we gained a deep understanding of how tribal communities feel about the team name and the detrimental effects it has on them. We also spoke to local civic leaders who represent diverse populations in our city and who highlighted the negative impact our team name has had on our broader population and on under-represented group across our community.”

While Dolan’s words represent progress, and it’s nice he acknowledged marginalized groups who were hurt by the team name, it should be noted that the statement issued makes it sound like a new realization. Native American groups have been campaigning for changing the name for decades. A 2010 study showed that using stereotypical Native American iconography helped perpetuate stereotypes. Claiming that only now did the team realize how harmful the name and logo were is hollow at best. It’s far more likely the organization saw backlash against the Washington Football Team, with sponsors threatening to leave the team, and decided to get out in front of the situation before it arose.

As a result, Cleveland will become the second pro sports team this year to remove Native American nicknames and iconography from the organization. Prior to the start of the 2020 NFL season Washington rebranded itself the “Washington Football Team,” while the organization searches for a new long-term nickname for the team.

History against the team name is vast

The first accounts of protest against Cleveland’s baseball team date back to the 1970s, but largely went ignored, and were never acknowledged by the team itself. In 1999 a letter written by the Society of Indian Psychologists called for the retirement of all Native American team nicknames and iconography in high school and collegiate sports, saying the imagery was against their ethical guidelines, and made it more difficult to instruct about the history and plight of Native Americans while sports teams used them.

Cleveland’s baseball team largely went under the radar as the sports world tended to focus on the far more egregious name of Washington’s NFL team. However, there were still deeply problematic elements specific to the MLB team. Chief Wahoo remained the most stereotypical depiction of Native Americans in sports, and with backlash mounting against the Washington Football Team, Cleveland began phasing out use of the logo.

At the start of the 2014 season Cleveland began using a block “C” on their hats, instead of Chief Wahoo. The caricature was still used as an alternate uniform, which garnered extensive protest during the team’s 2016 trip to the World Series. During the time a team spokesperson said the team was “aware” of the protests, but had “no plans to change” the logo.

After multiple appeals to Major League Baseball, the league began on-and-off discussions with Cleveland over the team name. In 2019 it was announced that Chief Wahoo would no longer be featured on any MLB-branded merchandise, and the team would remove the use of the logo from its website.

Then, in June of 2020 the team announced it would review the team nickname. Then on December 14 the formal announcement the team would change its name was announced.

What could the name be changed to?

There’s plenty of baseball history steeped in Cleveland culture that doesn’t involve use of Native American iconography, and would totally fit a rebrand.

Cleveland Spiders

Considered a frontrunner among many, the name “Cleveland Spiders” dates back to 1887 when the city had a National League team of the same name. The shortly-lived Spiders were basically a feeder team for St. Louis, and the team went defunct in 1899, but it the nickname would still be a nod to baseball in the city, as well as being completely unique.

Cleveland’s current colorway lends itself well for Spiders, and this just makes a lot of sense. Their logo was also incredibly dope by 1800s standards.

Cleveland Blues

This was the name of the current Cleveland team during its inaugural season in 1901. That means it makes a ton of sense, and there’s no team in MLB with a name like it. That said, there is a little bit of weirdness to this one that turns me off.

Firstly, there’s the Ohio oddity of having the Cleveland Blues and Cincinnati Reds. It’s a little too on the nose for my liking. Also, it’s inherently odd to have a team with red as its primary color be called the “Blues,” so you’d likely need a full internal rebranding to make this one work.

Cleveland Brown Sox

I’ve seen this one joked about on Twitter a fair bit, and I’m in love with it. It feels perfectly Cleveland. Not only is it a nod to the NFL team and the city, but it’s self deprecating in a way I feel Clevelanders would really appreciate.

Cleveland Commodores

This one has been mentioned a fair bit as a possibility, but I don’t see it. Look, at first glance this seems pretty good. Naval tradition is excellent, all that jazz. However, fans have a tendency to try and shorten their team names. The Nationals are the Nats, for instance.

If you try and shorten “Commodores” you end up with .... the Commies.

Actually, it’s perfect. Make this the nickname.

Cleveland Rocks

This idea was floated over on “Bleed Cubbie Blue,” and I kinda love it. It’s an ode to the rock and roll hall of fame, it was the iconic theme song for The Drew Carey Show. It’s definitely fairly cheesy and cringe-worthy, but it would mean we’d get a giant anthropomorphic rock mascot. So you take the bad with the good.