The Cleveland Indians baseball team will change its name to the “Cleveland Guardians” after the end of the 2021 season. The team’s name has been a matter of ongoing controversy, although they did change their logo some time ago. As would be expected, there are those who see the change as good and those who are very angry about the change. As would also be expected, some are trying to make the name change another battlefield in the absurd culture war of the right. Perhaps someday we will have memorials to those lost in the Battle of Mr. Potato Head and the brave souls fighting in the Dr. Seuss War.
While no one can claim a neutral lens, it is reasonable to point out that sports teams do change their names. The Cleveland Indians went through many name changes prior to arriving at their current name. As such, there is nothing unusual about a sports team changing its name. This is not to deny that some people get angry over any name change; but it is informative to look at the nature and focus of the anger that arises around such changes. It is also interesting to look at efforts to claim the name is not problematic because it was meant as a compliment.
In terms of the name change, the neutral facts are that the owner of the club wanted the name changed from “Naps” after the star player Nap Lajoie left the team. The controversy arises in terms of why “Indians” was selected. One story is that “Indians” was a nickname applied to the Cleveland Spiders when Penobscot Tribe member Louis Sockalexis played for the team. Being from Old Town, Maine (which is near where Sockalexis was born) I have often heard this story. While appealing to some, this seems unlikely, given that Sockalexis is not mentioned as the reason for the change in any contemporary stories about the name change. While this could be simply a repeated oversight, it would be odd to claim that the team was named after a person who was never mentioned as the reason for the change in the stories about the team being renamed. As such, there is no good reason to believe the team’s name was changed because of him. It is also important to note that this myth is typically used to argue that the name “Indian” was intended to honor Sockalexis (or native Americans in general). There is also a serious problem with that claim.
If one looks at the discriminatory treatment of native Americans at the time and the racist and discriminatory language used in the contemporary articles about the name change, it is clear that the use of “Indians” was not intended as an honor. If one looks at the old logo, it becomes even clearer. As a related point, when I went to high school, we were known as the “Old Town Indians”, complete with a logo not unlike that of the Cleveland Indians of the time. The name was changed recently; we are now the “Old Town Coyotes.” There was a bit of controversy over this; some was due to a common negative view of coyotes. I was fine with the change, having long been uncomfortable with the name and logo. But, of course, my opinion on the matter is not the important one: the people who were referred to as “Indians” are the ones who matter. Going full circle, these are the people of the Penobscot Tribe. Their reservation used to be called “Indian Island” and this was not meant to honor them. The same, one would infer, also holds for the Cleveland Indians. But one could argue that the origin of the term need not define its current use.
A defender of “Cleveland Indians” could concede that there was racism back then and that the use of the term was racist back then. They could point out that to infer that it must be racist now would be to commit the genetic fallacy. In this context, the fallacy is to infer that just because the name has a racist origin (genesis), then it must be racist now. This does have some logical merit: if the only evidence for the name being racist was that it was racist over a century ago, then it would be an error to infer from this that it must be racist now. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of evidence of ongoing racism against native Americans and the use of “Indians” in the team name is still fraught with racism. One can even point to an ironic bit of proof: racists are among the most passionate opponents of these name changes. This is not to claim that everyone who opposes the name change is a racist, but it is obvious why racists fight such name changes. Such fights do raise some interesting questions.
When people get very angry about a change like this, it is reasonable to inquire into why they are so angry and so passionate in their defenses. As an aside, it is ironic that those who seem angriest about such changes are usually those who accuse others of being too sensitive and too easily offended (by things like racism and sexism). It might be that they are especially passionate about team names, children’s toys and books, or Jim Crow era statues. On the one hand, people do obviously get very angry over what would seem to be trivial matters. As a silly example, people get angry about changes in video games—such as nerfing or buffing certain classes or units. On the other hand, if a person is fighting to defend the name “Cleveland Indians” it is reasonable to ask them why they are defending it—after all, it would make sense to suspect that such a defense is grounded in racism. If the person is passionately advancing untrue claims in this defense, such as the myth mentioned above, then this raises a concern: if it matters so much to them, how can they be unaware of the facts? It might be that a passionate defender is just mad at the “woke folks” for being too sensitive and too easily offended—which would be ironic. They might be trolling. Or they might be defending racism.
In closing, I am confident that the name has a racist origin and remains racist. Even if this were not the case, I would still be fine with the name change. After all, why would a sensible person get angry when some sports team decides to rebrand to make more money?