Philip Yenyo has been protesting outside Cleveland’s baseball stadiums for 30 years, demanding the local Major League Baseball team change a name many consider racist. But next spring, Yenyo will put down his signs and take his 11-year-old son inside Progressive Field for the first time.
“We can finally go to a game,” said Yenyo, the executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio. “I can’t wait to tell him. We’ve been waiting a very long time for this.”
Yenyo will be able to attend because Cleveland announced on Friday that it will change its name from Indians to Guardians, becoming the latest sports team to veer away from team names and mascots that reference Indigenous people.
For decades, Native American groups like Yenyo’s and others have petitioned sports teams to eliminate Indigenous names, mascots and imagery, insisting that they are racist, degrading and that they promote stereotypes. Momentum for widespread change had been building in recent years, and was accelerated last summer amid the protests for social justice following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
In the wake of large-scale protests for social justice that followed Floyd’s death, the Washington Football Team discarded the name “Redskins,” thanks in large part to pressure from sponsors like FedEx, Nike and Pepsi. Cleveland was considered the next highest profile Indigenous team name in American sports, and in December the team decided to make the change, after consulting with local and national Indigenous organizations.
One of the organizations the team turned to was the National Congress of American Indians. Aaron Payment, N.C.A.I.’s first vice president and also chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, lauded Cleveland for making what he said was a difficult, but appropriate decision.
“I’m sure there will be some pushback,” Dr. Payment said, “But they are on the right side of history and deserve credit for it. This new name closes the books forever on a derogatory name.”
Some of the loudest pushback came from former President Donald J. Trump, who described himself as a “former” baseball fan and called the change a disgrace.
“A small group of people with absolutely crazy ideas and policies, is forcing these changes to destroy our culture and heritage,” he said in a statement.
But the team has been moving inexorably away from the divisive name for years, and Guardians will be the fifth name in franchise history (the team was also known as the Blues, the Bronchos and the Naps). In 2019, Cleveland abandoned its caricature Chief Wahoo logo, which Major League Baseball said was inappropriate for use on the field.
Terry Francona, the Cleveland manager and a former player for the team, whose father also played there, said the goal was to represent the entire city.
“It’s not about us,” he said at a news conference. “It’s about other people, and you have to step outside of your own skin and think about other people that may have different color skin and what they are thinking. We are trying to be extremely respectful and I’m really proud of our organization.”
The new name, which was introduced by the club along with new logos in a two-minute video on the team’s Twitter account, has some resonance with Ohio residents who regularly cross the Cuyahoga River on the Hope Memorial Bridge. A group of massive, winged Art Deco sculptures on the span are known as the Guardians of Traffic and are said to be symbols of progress. They stand just a few minutes drive from the team’s stadium.
The new logo of a flashing G with wings, borrowed from the statues, also has an Art Deco feel to it and the style of the new script “Guardians” logo is said to mimic the trusses on the underside of the bridge. The colors will remain the same: red, white and blue.
Paul Dolan, the team’s chairman and chief executive, noted in the news conference that he is a fifth-generation Clevelander who grew up with the old name.
“We acknowledge the name change will be difficult for some of us, and the transition will take time,” he said. “It is our hope and belief this change will divert us from a divisive path and instead steer us toward a future where our fans, city and region are all united as Cleveland Guardians.”
Today’s Best Reader Comments
The club said that over the last several months it engaged in an extensive outreach program with some 40,000 fans to find the new moniker and conducted 140 hours of interviews with community members and team staff. They said they generated a list of 1,198 possible names. Alex King, Cleveland’s vice president for marketing and strategy, said the Guardians of Traffic statues have gained traction and popularity in the city over the several years, especially among younger adults, who consume craft beers out of mugs, placed on coasters, while wearing T-shirts, with each item depicting the statues.
“We knew this would not be as resonant nationally as it is locally,” he said, “and we are OK with that. We really wanted to stress the local with the new name.”
For a while it seemed that the Spiders, the moniker used by a now-defunct Cleveland National League team from 1889 to 1899, was a favorite. Others suggested a reference to Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, just blocks from the stadium, would be appropriate.
“I was hoping it would be Spiders,” Yenyo said. “But Guardians is good, too. I was listening to sports talk radio this morning and people were complaining and saying they don’t know what it refers to. If you are a Clevelander, you better know this stuff.”
The Cleveland team said it planned to make the change official after the current season ends. With that settled, Dr. Payment said his organization and others will focus on various other teams — like M.L.B.’s Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs of the N.F.L. and the Chicago Blackhawks of the N.H.L. — that use Native names and imagery. All of those teams have said they have no plans to change their names.
But earlier this month, the Portland Winterhawks, a minor-league hockey team, changed its logo from an Indigenous person to a hawk, eliciting praise from Suzan Harjo, a Native American activist and one of the earliest proponents for eliminating Indigenous names and mascots.
“It’s been a good July,” she said of the two recent changes. “It just shows, it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Harjo said the declaration of the new name was bittersweet, however, because it cannot erase the decades of damage she says that it, and other similar names, have caused.
“They were capitalizing on bigotry for a long time,” she said. “It caused genuine harm to Native peoples, and little kids grow up feeling that tremendous pain.”