Are Chief Wahoo’s Days Numbered?

Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a ruling canceling six trademarks in connection with the term “Redskins.”

American Indian groups hailed the ruling, which stated that the term was disparaging, and should never have been registered as a trademark for the Washington team in the National Football League. The ruling, similar to one made in 1999 but not upheld on appeal, doesn’t say that the NFL team in Washington can no longer be called the Redskins. Rather, it says that the name can’t be trademarked.

The Redskins name has been under fire recently, from federal officials to fans to American Indian groups. Although “Indians” is a less charged name than “Redskins,” this might seem familiar to Tribe fans, who have seen the same type of protests, mostly centering around Chief Wahoo, the team’s cartoonish mascot.

The Indians’ relationship with Chief Wahoo has been a complicated one in the past 20 years. The lighted statue of him that stood atop Cleveland Stadium has been put in a museum – specifically, the Western Reserve Historical Society. The team has worn Chief Wahoo on their hats for the better part of the past 70 years, but since moving to Jacobs (now Progressive) Field, has experimented with alternative hats, including a script I (which also appeared on alternate sleeveless uniforms for a time) and the block C which now also appears in box scores on MLB Network and ESPN.

Although the team appears to be de-emphasizing the mascot described as a racist caricature, they aren’t willing to completely phase it out. Baseball, more than any other spectator sport, is bound to tradition. Part of its appeal is the comfort that comes from knowing it hasn’t changed much – and the change of a mascot that remains beloved by fans and a part of their tradition of fandom would be no minor undertaking.

So of course, after the ruling by the Patent and Trademark Office, the question in Northern Ohio has become “Can it happen here?” Now, the ruling – which is once again being appealed by the team – doesn’t say that the word is banned from usage as a team name. Rather, it hits the team – and the league, the most profitable in American sports – in the wallet, since neither has the exclusivity of a trademark, and could see merchandise revenues decline.

No challenge has been brought against the Indians or Chief Wahoo – or against the Atlanta Braves or the Kansas City Chiefs, for that matter. But Robert Roche, director of the American Indian Education Center, has said that his group, People Not Mascots, will file a federal suit against the Indians in July.

Obviously, this is an issue that won’t go away … unless the Indians make it.

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