Back in February, I wrote about an action brought by an indigenous person in Canada regarding the Cleveland Indians’ logo and team name.
Baseball may be America’s national pastime, but there remains a single franchise north of the border, and that has created an interesting conflict between American and Canadian law. There is currently litigation about both Chief Wahoo and the Indians’ name pending in Canadian courts. In that case, an indigenous person is suing to block the Indians from using either their name or Chief Wahoo while playing in Toronto on the grounds that it violates Canada’s legal protections for indigenous peoples. Major League Baseball has intervened in that case on the Indians’ behalf. In Canada, “Indians” is a foreign (United States) registered trademark which has also been registered in Ontario, and Canadian law on free speech and trademarks is different. And if the plaintiff wins that case in Canada, the Indians would likely be required to play the Blue Jays in Toronto as simply “Cleveland.”
Interestingly, had the case been decided after the season, at least part of the issue would have become moot: the Indians are phasing out Chief Wahoo after this season. The case, however, has since ended — and though most reports indicate that Douglas Cardinal, the plaintiff, lost, that characterization of the result seems not to be entirely accurate. Instead, Cardinal’s lawyer, Monique Jilesen, told the Canadian Press that the case had been “resolved.” In fact, evidently as part of that resolution, the Indians did not display Chief Wahoo on their uniforms during their recent four-game weekend series in Toronto. According to Paul Hoynes,
Manager Terry Francona said the decision not to wear Chief Wahoo on their uniforms or caps during this four-game series at Rogers Centre in Toronto was made by the organization to show respect for anyone offended by the soon-to-be discontinued logo.
“We’re just trying to be respectful,” said Francona. “We’re never trying to be disrespectful by wearing it. We just want to do the respectable thing.”
Asked about the change, Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, who previously held the same role with Cleveland, expressed approval.
Mark Shapiro, who worked for the Indians for over 20 years, is quoted today talking about how happy he is that Chief Wahoo is leaving. Check out this "profiles in courage" quote from him. https://t.co/5kXlGKJyMA pic.twitter.com/UCGdb2YQ37
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) September 7, 2018
As Calcaterra notes, this is a new position for Shapiro. Just five years ago, when asked about Chief Wahoo while still president of the Indians, he said this:
Rizzo: “Alright, I’ve gotta ask this because there’s been rumors flying around and I want to get to this… I love the [block C] hats… and I notice a lot of C hats, a lot of younger people are wearing the C. Some of the older people still have the Chief Wahoo. Mark, are you guys phasing out Chief Wahoo?”
Shapiro: “No, Chief Wahoo’s not going anywhere. [Crowd applauds, Shapiro laughs nervously] We, we, are certainly doing our best to, uhhh, huhhh, to promote the C because the C is something that we’re proud of. The C, we’re proud of because it stands for Cleveland and that’s you know, we want our team, we want our our fans when they see our team play to know that who we’re representing are the Cleveland Indians. And uh you know we feel like the C, ah you know, maybe more than some of the other logos we’ve tried over the past years is one that’s gonna stick and one that is traditional and one that if you look back in the early 1900s for about 15, 20 years that block C was a part of the Indians’ history. So, I’m a big traditionalist, our uniforms reflect some tradition throughout them. Even the script “Indians” has went back away from the shadow to the single outline more like the 40’s, so you know we’ve got the script Indians, we’ve got the C, and we’ve got Wahoo. All three are important to us, all three are gonna be featured prominently. But I think what you’ve seen is, the fact that we’ve pumped up a new logo so much, and that it’s become such a core part that yes it does pull away and detract a little bit from the Chief, but the Chief is still on every uniform that we’ve got.
In the rest of that interview, Shapiro expresses similar sentiments.
On the other hand, the idea that Shapiro’s current position is new isn’t entirely accurate. Shapiro was instrumental in the addition of the Block C while in Cleveland. Even in interview cited above, he pushes the new logo. And Shapiro told Canadian Press as early as 2016 that he considered that a highlight of his Indians tenure.
“The logo — Chief Wahoo — is one that was troubling to me personally… So when I was an official spokesman for the Cleveland Indians, I distanced myself from the fact that it personally bothered me. But we as an organization with strong support from ownership came up with the ‘Block C’ that you’re wearing on your credentials right now. We built equity in the ‘Block C.’
“We gave that alternative for people and I think that we established that as an important logo and now the primary logo for the Cleveland Indians. And so I’m proud of that.
“I think there will be a day, whenever that is, that the people that are making decisions here decide that Chief Wahoo is no longer fitting. But people in this city — over 90 per cent of them — are deeply, deeply passionate about Chief Wahoo and want him to be part of their team. So that’s about all I’ll say because I’m not really focused or care that much about that anymore. That’s my opinion.”
So where does that leave Wahoo? This past weekend in Toronto was, if anything, a window into the future of the Cleveland franchise. Shapiro’s change of heart reflects a growing trend in Major League Baseball front offices, backed by Rob Manfred, that the logo is better relegated to a past era. And it seems it’s an era that Mark Shapiro is, at least in part, responsible for creating.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.