Rhea Butcher was born and raised in northeast Ohio, and thus, as is Ohio’s wont, she’s spent much of her life following the ups and downs of the Cleveland Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians. The comedian and Take My Wife star grew up watching the Indians with her late grandmother, and while she’s a big fan of the team—both past and present—she’s decidedly not a big fan of the team’s racist, redface mascot, the criminally named Chief Wahoo. That stance became a more public part of Butcher’s life this summer when, after watching footage of a dog attack on a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor by a woman wearing an Indians hat, she decided to walk away from her beloved Cleveland Indians. Their name and their logo, she tweeted, had pushed her too far, and though the team was headed toward good things in 2016, she just couldn’t back the team in good conscience anymore.
But then, the Cleveland Indians made the playoffs, and eventually the World Series, and Butcher popped back up online in support of the team, though clearly with some reservations. She went to World Series games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, though she didn’t sport any licensed team gear. The A.V. Club wanted to ask Butcher about her thought process, especially given that this piece’s author is an outspoken Cleveland backer who’s got a few reservations about the team’s branding herself. We got a very superstitious Butcher on the phone after the Indians lost the series and talked it out.
The A.V. Club: Why did you decide earlier this year to break with the Cleveland Indians?
Rhea Butcher: The answer to that is actually really simple, and it is that it’s 2016. I’m trying to phrase this in a way that’s going to make the most sense in print, but I don’t want teams to have these logos. It’s wrong, and it’s racist. It’s 2016.
This is just my opinion, but if there is one Native American person that’s like, “That hurts me and my heritage and my family,” then we shouldn’t have it. But I know there is more than one Native American that disagrees with it. And just because some Native Americans don’t have a problem with it doesn’t mean that the scores of Native Americans that are saying, “We do have a problem with it” are wrong. To me, if somebody says something is wrong, it’s probably wrong. I can clearly see with the eyes in my face and the brain in my head that this logo is wrong.
I tried as a fan to demonstrate that by only calling them “Cleveland baseball” and only buying merchandise that uses the supposed primary logo of the block C, but I realized, at some point, I’m still supporting it. No matter what, I’m still supporting it. I’m still giving the team my money. I am trying to lead by an example, but I don’t know that it’s actually affecting that amount of change.
I think it was in August that I decided to speed up the process. Before the DAPL protest hit the news like it did during the World Series, there was a first attack that happened the weekend that I was throwing out a first pitch for [the Indians]. It made Twitter moments, and one of the women that was working “security” for the DAPL pipeline was wearing the block C hat for Cleveland, holding back an attack dog. I saw that, and I realized you actually can’t separate them out. You can’t be like, “No, no, no, I’m good, because I only wear the logo that’s not racist, and I don’t say the word, and I don’t do this.” It’s actually all the same, and unfortunately you can’t separate the two, and that’s where I was at with that.
AVC: But you came back once the playoffs rolled around, at least a little.
RB: I did. Yeah. Was it a privileged position that I got to do that from? Absolutely. Do I think I’m a terrible person for that? No. Do I think that I had an opportunity to go to the World Series? I grew up watching baseball with my grandmother, which, we already talked about this, but she was literally dying, and we were watching that baseball team play together. We’re sitting in the hospital, and that’s what was on TV.
To me, it was like my last time really supporting the team. I didn’t go back and wear Wahoo. I wore a lot of Cavs stuff, and I wore my block C hat, and that was basically it. And stuff that said Cleveland on it.
In the past two years, I’ve been following the Cubs, because after my grandmother passed away, I really liked watching that team, and that was the other team that I was watching. I predicted this World Series, and I have Cubs fans friends that I was like, “Dude, what are we going to do if it’s my team versus your team?” They were like, “We’ll cross that bridge.” But I can’t root against my own hometown. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t turn and be on the other side. With Believeland and everything that had happened, it just felt too meant-to-be for the city of Cleveland.
When I adjust the lens and look at a wider landscape, I don’t think anybody outside of people that are in Ohio and from Ohio were cheering for Cleveland. Nobody was. That’s another reason that Cleveland should take a look at [Wahoo] and think, “People didn’t want us to win because we basically look like villains, because we have this horrible, racist mascot.” You guys should change that, and maybe then some other people might be into your team.
AVC: Were you watching baseball on the low before you got the chance to go to the World Series?
RB: Well, after I said I wasn’t going to outwardly support them, I was still watching them. They’ll always be my team. I just won’t be outwardly supporting them. I would watch the games.
I tweeted one time that I hoped they would wear the secondary logo in the World Series. In May, I told one of my friends, “I think they’re going to make the World Series this year, and they will wear Wahoo the whole way through.” My friend was like, “There’s no way they’ll do that, because they’re not that dumb.” I said, “Being dumb has nothing to do with it. They will absolutely wear it.” And then I was right. They wore it every game the whole way through.
I watched both sides, the NL and the AL postseason. I just watched it all the way through, because I’m a huge baseball fan. I went to games out here, and I wanted to watch the whole thing. They wore it every single game, and for a while I was tweeting that they were wearing it every single game, because it’s ridiculous that they’re trying to say that it’s a secondary logo when it’s on their shirts and it’s on their hats.
AVC: I can say from experience that Wahoo is not disappearing from the stadium in any way. It’s still everywhere.
RB: Uh, no. In fact, I think it’s more prevalent than it was last year. I didn’t go to any games last year, but I went to a handful this year, not including the World Series games, and you cannot get any kids merchandise without it on it. It’s almost as if it’s a logo for kids, the way that all their merchandise is positioned.
When I went back, it felt like the conversation was not people saying, “I want to keep this logo because it’s the logo I grew up with and the logo that I love.” That is not what people were saying, not that I think that is a valid argument, but it’s an argument to say that, “I don’t want to lose this thing that I relate to.” I disagree with it, but at least you’re just saying, “I’m sorry, this is how I feel. I love this thing.” The argument was more, “You’re not a real fan if you want to get rid of this.” It becomes about fandom and it becomes about “you can’t take this from me.” It’s very much become the anti-PC police conversation, and I don’t even want to be part of that conversation. If that conversation is happening, it’s clearly wrong.
I think it’s hard for people from northeastern Ohio to see how wrong it is, because we’ve all grown up with it, and it was everywhere. The fandom of Cleveland teams goes Browns, Indians, Cavs, in that order of how much we love those teams within the region. And so, that logo, to me, even though I’m a person who’s like, “That’s atrocious,” because I grew up with it, it’s like looking at a stop sign. It’s so ubiquitous to the landscape of northeastern Ohio. I think it’s also really hard for people to see it as anything other than a logo. But that’s a person. That’s a human being.
I know children who are Native American, and I would never say, “No, you should feel honored by this.”
AVC: And then there’s the bullshit justification where people say it’s honoring an old-time player.
RB: One very quick Google search will prove that they’re actually not honoring the player, but that it’s making fun of him. He was traded to the Yankees and won a World Series right after being traded away from Cleveland, and so that’s actually making fun of him because they were mad he left the team and won a World Series with a nemesis.
AVC: I will say that there are plenty of issues with the Cubs fans and organization, though they’re not quite as glaring as the issue with the Indians’ very existence.
RB: As a baseball fan, what’s amazing is that the World Series was a perfect baseball fan matchup, in that it’s the two teams with the longest droughts. It’s the stellar all-star handsome guys, clean cut, perfect dudes with a million dollar locker room who can do no wrong. Just the coolest guys versus a literal Major League team—the actual team from Major League that has nothing. But then you also look into it more, and you’re like, “Oh, this team is essentially representing indigenous racism in 2016, and then you have another team that picked up a domestic abuser [Aroldis Chapman] when no one else wanted him, and they had this really lovable team, and then all of a sudden, there’s this one guy that you’re like, “Did you really have to get that guy?” You had everything else—you really had to get that guy?”
I do not want to get in a fight with Cubs fans, because I’m not saying any of this stuff because their win wasn’t worth it or anything. I, as a baseball fan, am so glad that the last out was not with Aroldis Chapman on the mound, and that it was a smiling Kris Bryant throwing a ball to his best friend at first base. It’s a much better story than it could have been.
AVC: Sure. The Cubs won those games. Cleveland had every chance to win the series, and they lost.
RB: Oh, absolutely. And we only had three pitchers. When we lost on Sunday at Wrigley, I was like, “We’re not going to win.” We just didn’t have enough. We would have had to win all three games in Wrigley to win the World Series, and I can see that because it was on paper. You can just look at it. To me, it’s not that we blew a 3-1 lead—it’s that we somehow managed a 3-1 lead with three pitchers, versus a team with five. We had a bunch of gas at the beginning of the series, and they were out of gas, and then they filled up their tank and we had nothing left.
And it made sense to me that we would win the first two games at Wrigley. Could you imagine how nervous all those guys must have been? They’re under 27, and they’re playing in a stadium that hasn’t seen a World Series since 1945, and all those people want them to win. Of course they lost. It makes so much sense that Cleveland would just walk in and be like, “Great!” Because the reverse is true for the Cubs. As soon as I saw we were coming back to Cleveland, I was like, “Man, they’re going to win the World Series in Cleveland.” You could just see it.
It was also reminding me—seeing all these shots of Wrigley, of all the times that I walked down the street and people yelled stuff at me, and called me names and spit, or people were trying to hit me with their car because I was on a bike or push me off of my bike—it’s sports, and it’s a bunch of men, and that’s always going to be a problem.
I can’t wait for the comments on this article, by the way. Please put it in there that I’m saying I’m prepared for the comments.
AVC: It’s your funeral. Anyway, what do you think we can do about Chief Wahoo? What action can we take?
RB: There are two things that are happening. There’s the trademark lawsuit that involves the Redskins and also any team that uses a person as a mascot. If that just happened to go through, then all of this would be moot, and Cleveland wouldn’t be able to use it anymore. So their decision would be made for them. However, I don’t know that it’s going to go through.
With the amount of people that watched the World Series this year versus literally any other year since 1991, I think a lot of people were shocked to notice that that logo still existed. Cleveland hasn’t really been relevant as a World Series contender since 1997. There were plenty of people not happy with it then, but we didn’t have the internet and the constant commentary on everything. With the internet and the absolutely inhumane violent acts that the police were carrying out against indigenous and native people in North Dakota while this team was wearing this racist logo, something has to give.
I know so many people, and I’m not going to name them, that are somewhat high-profile Cleveland fans, and they don’t like it either. We all ultimately want to cheer for a team that brings people together and doesn’t make people feel bad. Whether it’s the person cheering for the team or the person depicted by the team’s terrible logo. I grew up with that logo. I grew up cheering for this team with family members that I have a lot of history with and great memories with. It doesn’t matter. It’s wrong.
When Cleveland made the World Series, someone I know said, “Hey, man, congrats!” I was like, “I feel pretty conflicted about it,” and they were like, “Why?” I was like, “The logo, man!” Then this guy was like, “Well, here’s the thing…” Of course it’s a guy telling me, “Here’s the thing.” He was like, “You were born there, you were raised there, and you grew up with it. I give you a pass.” It’s like, “Dude. That’s how racism works.” You can’t just say you grew up with it, you can’t help it, and this is just all you know. That’s exactly how racism is perpetuated. Just because it’s on a hat, it somehow doesn’t count?
People just have to actually say, “This is not okay.” I’m not going to super vocally support the team next summer. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Anytime I talk about them, I’m going to talk about it. Every time. Because people have to talk about it. If other people aren’t going to talk about it, then I’ll talk about it. I don’t know if I’m the highest-profile Cleveland baseball team fan, but people know that I like Cleveland, so I feel like I should be talking about it. I think talking about it is the only way to change it.
AVC: It would be great if some players would talk about it, but that’s a big ask.
RB: Here’s another thing: I imagine that they are missing out on talent because there are players that will not wear that uniform. Players are not outspoken about it, but Cleveland is probably on the do-not-trade list for some people. I don’t think it’s because we’re considered to be a terrible team. We’re not a bad team. We have one of the best managers in baseball, and we made it to the World Series. I don’t think that’s why. I think a lot of players agree with you and I, and they do not want to perpetuate that stereotype and wear that uniform.
AVC: It’s 2016. I don’t understand why the owners aren’t at least planning for the inevitability of losing the logo. Maybe not today—maybe it’s going to take two, five, or 10 years—but we’ve got to get it done.
RB: Somebody said to me today that the Dolan family, when they bought the team, basically went backwards on it, because they wanted to cash in on all the ’90s nostalgia, because Cleveland loves that ’90s team so much, and that’s why they didn’t get rid of it, because they said, “We’ll make more money this way.” It’s all about money.
AVC: I believe I read that all the Indians’ bestselling merch items have Wahoo on them.
RB: Yeah, but if you look at their merch, it’s on all their stuff. You really can’t not buy it.
AVC: There’s a Cleveland clothing company selling a “Keep The Chief” shirt, too, which is the worst.
RB: That shirt might as well be a red “Make America great again” hat. That’s the other thing. Our team’s mascot is being co-opted by Trump supporters, and used by deplorable people.
AVC: Well, there are a lot of Trump supporters in Cleveland.
RB: It’s all hand in hand. Early on, I was thinking about how I can be putting my voice to these things and saying, “As a white person, yes, absolutely, black lives matter.” How can I be a person trying to say these things and then all of a sudden be like, “Go Indians!” You can’t do that.
It sucks to have a team that is—I mean, as far as I know we don’t have any domestic abusers on our team, but Wahoo is worse. Well, I don’t know if you can say one is worse than the other. It’s a team of good guys trying to win a game, and I can’t cheer for them because of this stupid name of the team. It’s insane.
AVC: The #DeChief movement probably isn’t helped by the relatively small size of the Native American population.
RB: Well, people just aren’t listening. Whenever I talk to friends about it, or people get at me on the internet, they’re like, “It’s just white people complaining. It’s white people feeling guilty.” Actually, I think that it’s you only listen to white people. I think you, the other person, just don’t hear Native Americans talking about it, because we don’t amplify the sound. If you don’t look for it, you only hear from white people, and then you’re like, “Oh, you’re just being a whiny PC whistle” or whatever. It’s like, “Okay, but also this is still wrong.”
Honestly, how can you be like, “This is a tribute?” Scores of Native Americans were killed in this country so that you can play baseball in this country. It’s not like the Cleveland Indians have a Native American heritage night at Progressive Field. Where’s their outreach with Native American youth?
AVC: They would almost certainly not do that.
RB: Absolutely they wouldn’t, because then white people couldn’t show [up] in a headdress, because they might be embarrassed to do that in front of actual Native Americans. They might actually feel bad about something for once.