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Although the Supreme Court recently ruled that disparaging trademarks are protected by the First Amendment freedom of speech in Matal v. Tam, the Cleveland Indians have announced that they will cease use of their “Chief Wahoo” logo on player uniforms after several decades of complaints that the character is offensive.

Chief Wahoo is a cartoon-like caricature of a Native American male that the Indians adopted in 1947 1 and began to appear on uniforms in 19482. Although the logo has changed over the course of the past 70 years, Chief Wahoo has consistently been portrayed as large-toothed with a scarlet face and a feather headdress, which many Native Americans have found to be racist portrayals of their culture.

Despite the controversy, the Cleveland Indians resisted pressure to cease use of the logo for decades, although they have somewhat moved away from the logo in recent years in favor of a stylized “C” and removed signage with Chief Wahoo from signs at their home stadium, Progressive Field 3 . However, the team’s return to the World Series in 2016 reignited the debate on a national stage during a time when the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari for Tam and the Washington Redskins had dominated headlines since the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (“TTAB”) cancelled numerous REDSKINS-formative registrations on the basis that they disparaged Native Americans in 2014.

Following the Indians’ loss to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series and the announcement that Cleveland would host the Major League Baseball (“MLB”) All-Star Game in 2019 4, Commissioner Rob Manfred began to pressure the club to transition away from the Chief Wahoo logo in an effort to promote diversity and inclusion in the league.

After discussions between Manfred and Indians’ owner Paul Dolan, MLB and the Indians jointly announced that the team would stop using Chief Wahoo on player uniforms as of 2019 and the league’s e-commerce website will no longer offer merchandise with the character. However, player uniforms will continue to display the logo for the 2018 season and more importantly, the team will continue to sell club merchandise bearing the logo at the stadium and at retail outlets in northern Ohio indefinitely to maintain their trademark registrations and prevent third-parties from using the marks 5. The Atlanta Braves similarly sell a small amount of merchandise with their former “Laughing Indian” and “Screaming Indian” logos through MLB’s Cooperstown Collection in order to preserve its trademarks, despite transitioning away from their use of these logos as primary team marks decades ago 6.

While Native American groups remain steadfast in their protests that the team should also change its name 7, the changes made by the Indians and Braves are evidence of a willingness to demonstrate cultural sensitivity greater than that of the Washington Redskins, whose registrations were recently reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in light of Tam 8. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has publicly stated that he will “never” change the team’s name , irrespective of increased external pressure, including public statements by former president Barack Obama during his time in office.

The likelihood of change is further diminished by National Football League (“NFL”) Commissioner Roger Goodell’s public support of Snyder. In fact, when asked about the similar criticisms of the Redskins after MLB announced the phasing out of the Chief Wahoo logo, Goodell responded that he doesn’t see Snyder changing his perspective and further cited a Washington Post poll indicating that only ten percent of 504 Native American surveyed in 2016 9 deemed the Redskins name offensive.

While the Washington Redskins are not likely to follow the Cleveland Indians’ lead while the team remains under the ownership of Daniel Snyder and the NFL’s lack of pressure to change persists, Major League Baseball’s and the Cleveland Indians’ acknowledgement of the offensive nature of the Chief Wahoo logo is a large victory for Native American groups after decades of being dismissed by the courts.

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