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The Indians are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. And they're not even doing it right now

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In the official news release to announce that it will eventually change its racist name, the Cleveland baseball team spelled the name of the city wrong and used the word “process” three times in the first three sentences.

One of those things is just silly fodder for Twitter dunks — somewhere between schadenfreude and karma, depending on how you feel about the people involved. But the other — the harping on “process” — is indicative of how the team wants credit for moving forward without actually getting anywhere different.

The Indians — and they are still the Indians, we’ll get to that — are going to change their name, they announced Monday.

Just like what was reported by The New York Times on Sunday night. Just like what seemed inevitable back in July when they released a statement addressing the controversial moniker with a promise to “[engage] our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.” Just like what seemed inevitable in 2018 when they nixed the derogatory caricature of Chief Wahoo (from their uniforms, if not from the stadium stores) to secure All-Star Game hosting rights. Or four years earlier when they first began to phase it out.

Just like activists have been calling on them to do for decades.

You don’t need to announce the process of reckoning with the damaging impact of a racist team name if you’ve been doing that this whole time. If you haven’t, well, that’s its own revelation. And if you have — and here I’m talking to team owner Paul Dolan and any other executives with a decisive role in the rebrand — the news should be that they are no longer going to use “Indians.”

Except they are. For at least one more year. So tell me again, what’s the big news?

The Cleveland Indians announced plans to change their name following years of protests like this one, from 2019, but the team is not making the change until after 2021.
The Cleveland Indians announced plans to change their name following years of protests like this one, from 2019, but the team is not making the change until after 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

In an interview with the Associated Press, Dolan said, “We’ll be the Indians in 2021 and then after that, it’s a difficult and complex process to identify a new name and do all the things you do around activating that name.”

There’s that word again.

They will not adopt an interim name until that ~process~ can be completed. They will not set a date for when that ~process~ will be completed. They will not go by the Tribe, either, which Dolan said he would have “loved” in perhaps the most unforced error of them all. They want you to appreciate that Dolan has gone through “a learning ~process~” (punctuation mine) and now claims to believe “the name is no longer acceptable in our world.”

Or does he?

There was always going to be an unsatisfying ambiguity about whether sports franchises with reprehensible names were finally ditching them now because the people at the top had sincerely come to understand the damage they do or whether they were merely savvy business moves — careful calculations about whether it was more expedient to double down or to capitulate.

It doesn’t really matter, of course. Creating an environment where racism is rendered economically liable is its own version of progress and activists deserve credit for getting us there.

But as a baseball fan, you might want to believe your team is actively trying to be on the right side of history. You also just might want to think your team owner isn’t totally full of s***. That when he talks about an “epiphany” that followed the killing of George Floyd this past summer, or the “enlightening and challenging” conversations he’s had in the months since with activists and experts, that it’s not just pandering lip service.

I don’t know how to reconcile what Dolan says with what the team is doing. If the name is wrong, it’s wrong in 2021. If he recognizes its potential to cause pain to marginalized populations, then why is he planning to put it on players’ chests next summer? Hell, why is he putting it on the letterhead for news releases about how problematic it is?

In fact, the team announced plans to continue using and profiting from the offensive name and imagery even after it’s been officially (eventually) supplanted. They’re doing it “as a way to acknowledge our history,” or else to retain the trademark rights and prevent someone else from selling unlicensed Indians gear, or else even that’s a flimsy excuse for benefiting from a tacit endorsement of nostalgia-based racism. Anyway, you shouldn’t fall for any explanation that isn’t rooted in economics. It’s offensive that they would try to sell it as anything else.

As part of its attempt to garner positive coverage from over a century of misappropriation, Cleveland announced plans to donate profits from the sale of Chief Wahoo merchandise to unspecified “Native American-focused organizations and causes.” Whoever thought that made the organization look good is either an idiot or thinks you are or both. It’s craven and disgusting. It’s blood money or hush money. It’s literally paying people to tolerate your mockery of them. It’s leveraging the desperation of some Native American causes to benefit from perpetuating their cultural subjugation.

Ultimately, the plan to rename the Cleveland baseball team is either based in new ethical understandings or evolving corporate climate. A rebranding is a complicated endeavor, I’m sure, but if it actually bothered Dolan on a moral level to use the name “Indians,” he could just stop.

Anything else is just a business decision, and I don’t think we should have to congratulate him for that.

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