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The case against the Cleveland Indians

A last-minute, ambitious court application couldn’t ban the broadcasting of the baseball team’s controversial name and logo


 
In this April 8, 2014 photo, the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo logo is shown on the uniform sleeve of third base coach Mike Sarbaugh during a baseball game against the San Diego Padres in Cleveland, Ohio. In this April 8, 2014 photo, the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo logo is shown on the uniform sleeve of third base coach Mike Sarbaugh during a baseball game against the San Diego Padres in Cleveland, Ohio. A Toronto court will hear arguments today on an attempt to bar the Cleveland Indians from using their team name and logo in Ontario.The legal challenge by indigenous activist Douglas Cardinal comes on the same day that the baseball team takes on the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. (Mark Duncan/CP)

In this April 8, 2014 photo, the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo logo is shown on the uniform sleeve of third base coach Mike Sarbaugh during a baseball game against the San Diego Padres in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Mark Duncan/CP)

Time ticked—on slinky wristwatches, silenced cellphones and the clock on the wall of the courtroom. Few hours remained until the Toronto Blue Jays played the Cleveland Indians on Monday night. Yet, for Douglas Cardinal, the Indigenous man who argued that broadcasts of the Cleveland Indians’ name and logo would violate his rights, the night had already passed, and he hadn’t seen any broadcasts. He is in China (for undisclosed reasons), respondent lawyer Kent Thomson told the judge. “One thing that is abundantly clear is that Rogers is not broadcasted in China.”

An architect and residential school survivor, Cardinal applied for an injunction to prohibit Rogers Communications Inc. (which owns Maclean’s) and Major League Baseball from broadcasting the name of the Cleveland Indians and their logo—a “red-faced, bucktooth, grinning Indigenous person,” as his counsel described. Cardinal argued that such broadcasts would violate his rights to be free of discrimination. “Chief Wahoo,” as the character is named, has been one of the most controversial and offensive figures in professional sports, leading to protests for decades in the United States but no major changes except for the de-emphasis of the logo in favour of a capital “C.”

Along with Cardinal’s whereabouts, time was another aggravator in his case. The application came on a Friday night, sending lawyers on both sides to scramble over the weekend to collect affidavits and prepare cases before Monday night’s match, Game 3 of the American League Championship series. (The first two games were in Cleveland.) “We must live under the principles of urgency,” said Michael Swinwood, a lawyer for Cardinal. “The decisions have to be hastened.”

Toronto has been playing Cleveland for 40 years, and the sudden demands would have been near impossible for Rogers and MLB to obey, argued Thomson. Cardinal wanted to prohibit the two companies from broadcasting any instance of the term “Indians” spoken by their sportscasters or any image of Chief Wahoo in their footage. “The game can go ahead. The team can play. There will be no loss in enjoyment for any viewers, and Aboriginal people can watch it at a reduced amount of discrimination,” said Monique Jilesen, counsel for Cardinal. Yet, Thomson argued that, since players and fans wear the logo on equipment and clothes, Rogers would’ve needed to “completely blackout the games,” and thus “punish millions and millions and millions of Canadians.”

In Cleveland, sports pundits didn’t expect the Canadian effort to succeed. “Good luck with that,” says Bill Livingston, a sports columnist for the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland. “People like rooting for the ‘Indians’ and wearing their headdresses … I would think it’s going to be a while before the Indians aren’t the Indians.”

Livingston has seen some progress since he began writing about baseball in 1984; a dining area in the team’s home stadium is no longer dubbed “the teepee”; valuable rookies no longer get awarded a tomahawk (a traditional hatchet-like tool), and each time a Braves player knocks a home run, a mascot named “Nock-A-Homa” no longer begins to dance.

Livingston still uses the name “Cleveland Indians” in his columns but has written in support of a new logo. He feels that fans won’t stop using the imagery until they personally talk to an Aboriginal person about it. When Livingston did, “He said, ‘Do I look like that? Do we look like that?’ Obviously they don’t.”

At 5:10 p.m., just three hours before the game, Justice Tom McEwen rendered his decision, dismissing the application with reasons to follow. “This was a bit of a forced march over the last four days,” he noted to the lawyers, who had to move courtrooms three times to find one that could hold all the spectators.

“I hope that, one day, the Cleveland team’s ownership will realize that its racist name and logo has got to go—entirely,” Cardinal said in a statement after the decision. “Until then, we will continue to argue our case before the appropriate legal authorities.” But even if the Indians’ name and red-faced cartoon get banned from broadcasting, they will likely persist in baseball culture, Cardinal says. As his counsel said, “if only we could get an injunction for that.”


 

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