The Cleveland Indians got bounced from the playoffs this week in front of a sold-out crowd that included a handful of fans who, in a misguided attempt to show their team spirit, came dressed in redface.
The fans wanted to emulate the team's logo, a grinning Indian named Chief Wahoo. (No seriously, the Indians' unofficial mascot is named Chief Wahoo.) The facepaint "raised eyebrows" with some viewers, but it generally triggered indignant accusations of racism against the fans — not against the team itself.
Meanwhile in the NFL, there has been resounding criticism this year of the Washington Redskins, with virtually everyone except the league and Redskins ownership saying the team name is racist. Several news outlets and prominent sports writers have said they'll no longer use the word "Redskins" in their coverage, and members of Congress threatened to force owner Dan Snyder to change the name via an amendment to a trademark bill.
The disparity of criticism is striking, but, to a degree, understandable.
For one, "Redskins" itself is offensive. The team's uniforms, stadium, and merchandise all bear a blatant racial slur, and you can't even talk about the team without using the term or dancing around it.
While names like Indians — and let's not forget the Braves — reference Native Americans, the names themselves are not as overtly offensive. Their racism is of a subtler tinge, confined to questionable traditions — think the Braves' tomahawk chop — and logos.
The teams also differ in the way they have confronted the issue.
Chief Wahoo is racist, period. No one could deny that if he were instead a cartoonish African American, or if fans came to a game in blackface.
And the Indians have gradually distanced themselves from the logo. This year, the team adopted batting helmets with a "C" on the front — as they have done in the past with their cloth caps — in place of Wahoo.
The Braves, too, have moved away from their more offensive imagery. The team planned to bring back the old "screaming savage" cap for spring training this year, but scrapped the plan amid much criticism.
The Redskins, on the other hand, have vehemently defended the team's name and Native American imagery, with Snyder insisting he would never, under any circumstances, change the name. The league, too, defended the racist term in a preposterously tone-deaf statement. Redskins has "from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement," Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote, and is a "unifying force that stands for strength, courage, and respect."
None of that is to say the Indians and others don't deserve a good measure of scorn. Plenty of colleges have dropped all derogatory references to Native Americans. Thus the Stanford Indian became the Stanford Cardinal, and the St. Johns Redmen became the Red Storm.
The Indians are moving in the right direction, relegating Wahoo to shirtsleeves, and thus further from sight. Yet as those fans showed Wednesday, the Redskins are hardly the only team still clinging to outdated, offensive vestiges of their less-enlightened pasts.