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Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo Trademark “Striking Out” in 2019

Cleveland Indians

by Nigel James*

After several decades of facing criticism and protests over the polemic Chief Wahoo trademark, the Cleveland Indians have conclusively decided to remove the logo from their hats and uniforms starting in 2019.[1]  In 1947, Walter Goldbach, a 17-year-old, designed the logo after he received a request from Cleveland owner, Bill Veeck, who was seeking a new symbol for the team.[2]  The current version of Chief Wahoo dates back to 1951, after changes were made to give him red skin and a smaller nose.[3]  The decision to discontinue use of this logo on team hats and uniforms comes over sixty years later–just before Cleveland will host the 2019 All-Star Game.[4]  While this decision has been applauded by a variety of individuals and organizations, others have asked why Cleveland does not immediately end the use of Chief Wahoo today.[5]

The Issues with Chief Wahoo

There have been numerous issues involving symbols and team names related to Native Americans in several sports leagues, such as Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).[6]  While there have been efforts to phase out usage of racist depictions of Native Americans in sports, any attempts have been relatively slow in effectuating change.[7]  In Canada, Cleveland’s logo was unsuccessfully challenged by Douglas Cardinal.[8]  Mr. Cardinal sought a court injunction to stop Cleveland from using the logo and the name “Indians” while they were playing playoff games in Toronto.[9]

With regard to Chief Wahoo, there are two major issues with this depiction of a Native American man: his red skin and the feather placed in his hair.[10]  Calling a Native American a “redskin” started in the middle of the nineteenth century and has been considered a slur since at least the 1970s.[11]  This has been an ongoing issue between the NFL and protestors against the name of the Washington Redskins and their logo depicting a Native American man.[12]  The Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians logos not only depict Native Americans with red skin, but inaccurately showcase their culture.[13]  For example, feathers in Native American culture are important to their traditions and practices and carry significant meanings.[14]  However, the Cleveland Indians’ logo is inaccurate due to the fact that chiefs wear large headdresses and not simply a single feather.[15]

Steps toward eliminating Chief Wahoo began in 2016, when Cleveland changed Chief Wahoo to be their secondary symbol.[16]  While emphasizing their “C” logo, they did keep a smaller symbol of Chief Wahoo on their sleeves and hats, before eventually making this decision to remove him from the field completely.[17]

Intellectual Property Rights

One area that concerns the team’s further usage of Chief Wahoo involves trademark protections.[18]  As a trademark, the Cleveland Indians and MLB wish to keep possession of Chief Wahoo while continuing to sell authorized merchandise.[19]  If they were to cease use completely, Cleveland and MLB would jeopardize their sole ownership and others would be able to start selling products that have Chief Wahoo on them, since trademark rights are determined and sustained by “actual use.”[20]  Many are interested in Chief Wahoo merchandise due to the history and controversy behind the mascot, as evidenced by increasing prices on shopping websites like eBay.[21]  While Chief Wahoo will no longer continue to be visible on the field, products that contain the image will continue to be available in Cleveland and Canada.[22]

What Happens Next?

While this appears to be a step in the right direction, many are concerned with Cleveland and MLB continuing to generate revenue from using a racist depiction of a Native American.[23]  With regard to the fans, it is not likely that the removal of Chief Wahoo from the field will stop fans from painting their faces red or dressing and acting in a way that they believe is related to Native Americans.[24]  This will be even more apparent with fans who have long supported the use of the logo and perpetuate its use after Chief Wahoo is no longer visible on the field–and perhaps even after Cleveland removes Chief Wahoo from their merchandise (if ever).[25]  Nonetheless, the National Congress of American Indians has commended the upcoming change, seeing the MLB eliminating Chief Wahoo as a potential example to other sports leagues in recognizing the demands of Native Americans.[26]


* Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

[1] See Cleveland Indians to Get Rid of Controversial Team Logo, Aljazeera (Jan. 29, 2018), (discussing decision to end usage of Chief Wahoo on uniforms).

[2] See Paul Hoynes, Walter Goldbach, Who Drew Chief Wahoo at 17, Never Meant It to Become a Symbol of Racism, Cleveland (Dec. 16, 2017), (detailing story of Walter Goldbach).

[3] See Chris Chavez, How Chief Wahoo Has Evolved Over Time, Sports Illustrated (Oct. 27, 2016), (explaining changes to Chief Wahoo since creation).

[4] See Jordan Bastian, Cleveland to Host 2019 All-Star Game, MLB (Jan. 27, 2017), (exploring Cleveland hosting game and history as host).

[5] See Cleveland Indians to Remove Divisive Chief Wahoo Logo, Guardian (Jan. 29, 2018, 1:00 PM), (stating executive director of American Indian Movement of Ohio questioning continued usage).

[6] See Legislative Efforts to Eliminate Native-Themed Mascots, Nicknames and Logos: Slow But Steady Progress Post-APA Resolution, Am. Psychol. Assoc., (last visited Apr. 4, 2018) (focusing on legislative efforts for changes).

[7] See id. (providing reasons for slow progress).

[8] See Architect Douglas Cardinal Still Wants to Proceed with Cleveland Indians Human Rights Complaint, Saskatoon Star Phoenix (Jan. 30, 2018), (exploring national human rights violation as well as violation within province).

[9] See id. (discussing challenge to logo and further legal efforts by Cardinal).

[10] See Cleveland Indians to Drop ‘Chief Wahoo’ Logo Criticized as Racist, Reuters (Jan. 29, 2018, 1:31 PM), (describing Chief Wahoo logo).

[11] See Ian Shapira, A Brief History of the Word ‘Redskin’ and How It Became a Source of Controversy, Wash. Post (May 19, 2016), (providing historical timeline of the word redskin).

[12] See Aman Tiku, The Washington Redskins’ Name Is Still Indefensible, The Gate (Feb. 26, 2018, 5:01 PM), (discussing how Cleveland Indians dropping Chief Wahoo has put name issue with Washington Redskins “back into public eye”).

[13] See id. (explaining defenders of Redskins team name are less concerned with respecting Native American history).

[14] See Rob Hotakainen, Some Native Americans Defy U.S. Law on Eagle Feathers, Wash. Post (Feb. 22, 2013), (mentioning use of eagle feathers and purposes related to culture and religion).

[15] See Brad Ricca, The Secret History of Chief Wahoo, Belt Magazine (June 19, 2014), (stating distinction for chiefs).

[16] See Cleveland Indians Downgrade Chief Wahoo to Secondary Logo, Fox Sports (Apr. 2, 2016, 11:35 AM), (indicating status change of logo to no longer being primary symbol).

[17] See id. (stating continued usage of logo on uniform).

[18] See Image Trademark With Serial Number 73011583, Justia, (last visited Apr. 4, 2018) (displaying ownership of trademark and history).  See also Cleveland Indians Baseball Company, LLC Trademarks, Justia, (last visited Apr. 4, 2018) (showing trademarks owned by Cleveland Indians).

[19] See David Waldstein, Cleveland Indians Will Abandon Chief Wahoo Logo Next Year, N. Y. Times (Jan. 29, 2018), (discussing why MLB and Cleveland wishes to keep control over trademark for profits).

[20] See Trademark, Patent, or Copyright?, USPTO, (last visited Apr. 4, 2018) (explaining rights associated with trademarks).

[21] See Marc Bona, Chief Wahoo Bobbleheads, Other Merchandise Hot Item on eBay, Cleveland (Feb. 5, 2018), (detailing merchandise with Chief Wahoo being sold at high prices with increase in demand).

[22] See Maury Brown, Cleveland Indians Are Removing Chief Wahoo From Field But Have Incentive To Keep Him On Shelves, Forbes (Jan. 29, 2018, 2:38 PM), (stating geographical availability of merchandise with Chief Wahoo on it).

[23] See Camila Domonoske, Cleveland Indians Will Remove ‘Chief Wahoo’ From Uniforms in 2019, NPR (Jan. 29, 2018, 3:00 PM), (stating concerns of making profits off racist image).

[24] See id. (exploring fan behavior).

[25] See id. (describing feelings of supporters of keeping Chief Wahoo logo).

[26] See NCAI Applauds Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Franchise for Retiring Offensive Chief Wahoo Log, Nat’l Cong. of Am. Indians (Jan. 29, 2018), (expressing support for discontinuing usage of Chief Wahoo).