Chief Wahoo and ESPN: The Anatomy of a Rumor

by Nicholas Frankovich

Last Wednesday at espn.go.com, Paul Lukas, “sports journalism’s foremost uniform reporter,” brought his readers up to date on the campaign to pressure the Cleveland Indians to drop one of their logos, the cartoon figure Chief Wahoo. Lukas’s piece, labeled “Commentary,” carried the headline “Hail to De-Chiefing,” a reference to the act of ripping Wahoo off team merchandise to express disapproval of him.

Lukas has written on the issue of American Indian themes in sports before. He stated his opposition to Wahoo more directly in a column at the ESPN site a couple of years ago. Stephanie Liscio, who blogs about the Indians for ESPN, went on record against Wahoo in 2011. ESPN’s giving space to Lukas’s and Liscio’s opinions on this issue appears to be what Kabir Bhatia, a reporter for WKSU, an NPR affiliate outside Cleveland, had in mind when he wrote earlier today that “even ESPN has endorsed dropping the mascot.”

Anti-Wahoo activists wasted no time in taking to Twitter to assert that “the NPR piece reports that ESPN has banned use of the logo, so they have #DeChief-ed their networks.” That’s obviously a wrong, tortured reading of Bhatia’s article. Alerted, Bhatia emended it this afternoon: “While ESPN writers including Paul Lukas and Stephanie Liscio have called for the logo change, the organization has taken no stance.”

Whatever the consensus on Wahoo at ESPN, why would executives bother to create the drama of declaring a policy against him? They don’t need to say anything. The Indians’ new primary logo is a block “C,” which is now the logical generic image to accompany any news item about the team.

Bhatia may have been racing against the clock or fighting a word limit, so I’m inclined to cut him some slack for his imprecision, especially after he took the trouble to respond to my inquiry and post the correction online. The anti-Wahoo activists who misread his article or perhaps deliberately misrepresented it are a different story. Their failing is either intellectual or moral. Take your pick.