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Cleveland Fans Confront Racist Traditions


Now, we turn to a growing national debate about sports franchises and Native American themed mascots and team names. The Cleveland Indians is the latest team to enter that debate, especially now that it's baseball season. Its mascot, named Chief Wahoo, is under attack.

Joining us now to talk about it is Peter Pattakos. He's an attorney and founder of clevelandfrowns.com. It's a sports blog about Cleveland athletics. Peter, welcome to the program.

PETER PATTAKOS: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: We should mention that this debate over Native American themed mascots and Chief Wahoo in particular is not a new one. I understand that the first lawsuit was actually filed over the mascot in 1972. So why do you think this is coming up so strongly now?

PATTAKOS: Generally as social media platforms make people's voices and opinions more accessible, we've seen folks on the anti-mascot side able to organize more effectively and present their views more effectively, but President Obama's statement against the Redskins mascot was huge.

HEADLEE: So since you mentioned social media, we should talk about the photo that you posted on Twitter. It was retweeted more than 2,500 times. I was one of those retweets. It looks like a serious conversation between a Native American man and then an Indians fan who's done up - not just in red-face, but he's got, you know, Chief Wahoo all over the place.

The photo went very viral. The fan's named Pedro Rodriguez. He called into "The Really Big Show" with Tony Rizzo and Aaron Goldhammer from ESPN Cleveland. Let's take a listen to some of what he said.


PEDRO RODRIGUEZ: Will I wear Chief Wahoo next year? Yes, I will. I'm not backing from my stand, that's who I am. Like I said, I'm a tribe fan first and foremost and I've been doing this for opening day now for 10 years. And I do it because I love the Indians and the mascot is Chief Wahoo. There's no other reason I did it. I didn't do it to embarrass Cleveland or the Native Americans.

HEADLEE: Peter, I'm sure there's lots of fans out there who, for them, this is something they grew up with. It's part of nostalgia, it's part of their hometown tradition. And letting go of something like that would be almost like for them, letting go of a Christmas tradition. What's your response to that?

PATTAKOS: I'm in the same boat. I am a - grew up a Cleveland baseball fan, I'm still a Cleveland baseball fan as much as I can be. It's a magical thing, that first trip to the ballpark. And until the Indians moved into their new ballpark, they were done at Municipal Stadium on the lake, there was a giant 35-foot statue of Chief Wahoo. And I think for so many of us, myself included, we didn't think of a Native American at all.

It was more of a - this cartoon character, this slugging alien angel of joy that reminded us of the magic of those trips to the ballpark and that is part of why this is so difficult. I certainly don't doubt Mr. Rodriguez when he says that this is about baseball to him, but I think that's beside the point. I mean, intent and impact are obviously two different things. Your intention doesn't matter when the impact is so obviously racist and demeaning.

HEADLEE: Do you still attend home games? Do you go to see the Indians?

PATTAKOS: Here and there I will, yes.

HEADLEE: What's the atmosphere like? Is there tension sometimes between those who've maybe removed the Chief Wahoo mascot from their jerseys and those who haven't?

PATTAKOS: That's a relatively new phenomenon, the de-chiefing thing phenomenon. You don't see people confronted. I mean, the pro-Wahoo folks in the stadium are in the majority, in the great majority, so it takes some courage to say something to someone about it. I was at a game last year where folks were doing a war whop, you know the (imitation of war whop)...


PATTAKOS: ...Doing that and after a while I just couldn't take it and I said something to a fan. Our whole section got into a very spirited debate. I was glad to get people thinking on that issue. And I hope to see more of that, I hope to hear about more of it.

HEADLEE: You mentioned the term de-chiefing and just so everyone understands, de-chiefing is the term people have given to those who have chosen to just kind of remove that Chief Wahoo logo while continuing to wear their Cleveland Indians shirt.

You know, as I mentioned, there was actually a lawsuit filed over this mascot in 1972 that was settled about 10 years later. This has been tried in court, but the right to use the mascot has always been supported by judges. I wonder what you think can be said that's new that might convince either the team owners to change it or might change the legal case?

PATTAKOS: Whether there's a solution in the courts or not, I don't know why Clevelanders - whether it be regular Clevelanders, whether it be the business community, whether it be the Cleveland Indians organization in Major League Baseball, I don't know why they want to continue to affiliate with this thing that is really, you know, right out of a - the Jim Crow, Sambo animation houses that were printing cartoons that really existed to legitimize patterns of prejudice.

Chief Wahoo was drawn first in 1947, that's right where this comes from. That is when Jim Crow was thriving in this country. Certainly, nobody in America was concerned - or certainly not the majority culture that was responsible for the Chief Wahoo logo were certainly not concerned with minority rights at that time. So I don't know why anyone would want to cling to this. I mean, you know, it's right against wrong. It's not something that really needs to be determined in a court.

HEADLEE: Peter Pattakos is the founder of sports blog clevelandfrowns.com. He joined us from WCPN in Cleveland. Peter, thank you so much.

PATTAKOS: Thank you, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.