Every season, we cheer the Browns, the Indians and the Cavaliers. We live and die, mostly die, by our sports teams. Since we just celebrated the home opener for the Indians, most of our thoughts are on baseball. It’s been called “America’s game” and its players “the boys of summer.” Here in Cleveland, some people call it racist.
The team has been called the Indians since 1915 and Chief Wahoo, with his leering grin, is the mascot. Every opening day since 1973, a group of Native Americans have protested the team name and more specifically, Chief Wahoo. They say the name is racist and the mascot, even more so. This year, 10 or so people demonstrated, holding signs that said things like “Stop Teaching Your Children Racism” and “People not Mascots.”
An urban legend – one embraced by the team’s front office – has been built around the origins of the name, one that claims the team (then called the Cleveland Naps) was renamed to honor former player and Penobscot American Indian Louis Sockalexis. Sockalexis was a fielder for an even earlier team, the Cleveland Spiders. He signed with the Spiders in 1897 but injured himself a few months later falling or jumping out of a second-story window when he allegedly was drunk. His game suffered as a result of his injuries and he only played two seasons. He died in 1913 at the age of 42.
Now, I can’t speak for the Indian’s front office, but I’m guessing that despite the urban legend, no one named the team in honor of a player who only played two seasons. Especially since Sockalexis, ironically, was himself the victim of racism, with fans taunting him from the stands because of his heritage.
I’ve attended a few season openers and I can tell you, racism is alive and well in Cleveland. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether the team name is racist (I lean towards not) or the mascot offensive (I lean towards yes). But the comments, often fueled by some pre-game lubrication at local bars, yelled at the protesters are offensive and racist.
Listening to them this year reminded me of an election year cover story in 2008. When president Barack Obama won the election, we put his image on the cover of the magazine. Historically, we either put both candidates photos on the cover as part of pre-election coverage, or we run the winner’s photo as part of a post-election look ahead at the new administration.
Republican or Democrat, I’ve never received the kinds of comments I received when President Obama was on our cover. The comments we received from a few readers were, frankly, so “out there” and vitriolic that our group vice president asked me if I thought we should notify the FBI.
And that made me think of a news story from January, in which Arizona Gov. Jan. Brewer had a heated exchange with President Obama and she pointed her finger in his face, a moment preserved by photographers. When I first heard about it, my reaction was shock. Regardless of political ideologies, the man is the elected president of the United States. I cannot imagine any elected official doing that to any of our previous presidents. Or, as in the case of a legislator a couple of years ago, booing during the State of the Union address.
I honestly believe that in some of these instances – certainly some of the comments made to the Cleveland protestors and the reaction to our 2008 cover – racism is at work. However, I also think that people are less civil now, perhaps due to the ability to post comments anonymously on Web sites and blogs, perhaps due to a breakdown in values, maybe due to general frustration and fear…I can’t say for sure.
As a coworker said to me the other day, “The Beatles got it wrong; all you need isn’t love. It’s common courtesy.”