Congrats to Manfred, of course, but this award seemed less about honoring its recipient than about sending a message. Is anyone else in Washington paying attention?
“Through Commissioner Manfred’s willingness to engage with Indian Country to learn about the many documented harms that offensive Native ‘themed’ mascots cause Native people, Major League Baseball has taken an important first step in ridding the professional sports landscape of these symbols of disrespect once and for all,” NCAI President Jefferson Keel said in a statement. “NCAI’s recognition of Commissioner Manfred’s instrumental leadership in MLB’s decision to phase out the dehumanizing Chief Wahoo mascot and logo reminds other sports leagues and teams that the tide of history is building towards respect for Native peoples, and we encourage them to embrace the approach that MLB is taking.”
There are, as we well know, no “other sports leagues and teams” that propagate native mascoting and mocking more than the NFL and its franchise in Washington, where NCAI is championing Manfred and his cleanup effort in Cleveland. This is the issue’s ground zero. And as NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata told TMZ Sports, this award is intended to send a message.
It is meant to be heard not only by the NFL, Washington team owner Daniel Snyder and the league’s Kansas City franchise, but also by this White House. President Trump has mocked native people with slurs for native women and, just the other day, belittled the European genocide of native people in a tweet about the campaign trail.
Manfred didn’t have to do what he did. He didn’t poll morality. He didn’t pass on the issue to Cleveland as an individual franchise decision. He took the reins of a business that shirked this issue for years and decided to act pretty much on his own with the support of some others. Snyder could have done the same, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could have assisted.
Manfred told me Monday that he would leave it to his peers at other sports leagues — not just Goodell, but the NBA’s Adam Silver with the Golden State Warriors and the NHL’s Gary Bettman with the Chicago Blackhawks — to run their leagues as they feel appropriate. Manfred, who grew up in Upstate New York, where some native-run casinos are based, said he was uncomfortable with the longtime Cleveland logo.
“This particular project was something where, when I became commissioner, I felt some unease at where we were,” Manfred said. “We made our own decision and judgments with what is best for our sport . . . what we thought was best for Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Indians.”
There is still the matter of erasing the nickname Indians from the Cleveland club. And there is baseball’s Atlanta club, which has been fighting to get its fans to stop cheering the team by employing the so-called tomahawk chop — an invention of those who colonized and all but exterminated native people that purports native people as violent.
“The Braves have taken steps to take out the tomahawk chop,” Manfred said. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that.”
But baseball under Manfred’s leadership moved a light-year ahead of the NFL when it came to sensitivity toward people of color by setting an example in its sport about what would no longer be acceptable in branding.
Manfred’s leadership appeared to reverberate immediately throughout the sport. Shortly after he brokered discussions with Cleveland, the baseball trading card company Topps announced it was removing the image from its subsequent release of Cleveland cards.
Little League Baseball announced that starting this year it would no longer allow “mascots, nicknames or logos that are racially insensitive, derogatory or discriminatory in nature.” Little League made the change after a challenge from a human rights organization.
By honoring Manfred, NCAI tapped into the ongoing zeitgeist to be on the right side of history with regard to native mascoting. The practice is dying everywhere one turns, despite the obstinance of the NFL and Snyder.
“Of all the leadership across professional sports, only Commissioner Manfred has taken that important first step toward the elimination of the mocking, derogatory imagery of Native people that is so prevalent in our popular culture,” Kevin Gover, head of the National Museum of the American Indian, said in a video thanking Manfred. “There is more to be done, and we can hold up Commissioner Manfred as an example to be followed.”
“I think we got to the right place,” Manfred told me.
They did — morally and, on Tuesday, geographically.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.