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There may not be too many people empathizing with Cleveland Indians fans disappointed, if not furious, at the team's decision to eliminate its use of Chief Wahoo, a caricature of a Native American.

Fans and followers of the University of Illinois have experienced a similar loss. In 2007, the university officially eliminated all use of Chief Illiniwek and images connected with him. An 80-year tradition was quashed by the NCAA that essentially used its power to gift and deny tournament locations.

Economic blackmail forced a decision that may have resounded in a positive way throughout much of the country. But that decision was mourned, and continues to be among many in Central Illinois.

Outside interests felt the Chief was a gross caricature, a stereotype that demeaned Native Americans. Chief backers point to tradition, the respect they felt was paid by the student portraying the Chief, and they insisted everything about the Chief was intended to reflect dignity and respect. The Chief was a symbol, they said, not a mascot that preened with other mascots, or made commercial appearances.

Compared with many other university mascots and symbols throughout the nation, viewed through the prism of life in and around Central Illinois, there was dignity and respect in Chief Illiniwek. But we've become a smaller country as words and images rocket around the world in seconds.

There was definitely a time when Cleveland's Chief Wahoo was not highly visible. If the mascot had any presence, that was something about which socially concerned fans would shake their head and quietly look away.

There's also been a portion of the Cleveland baseball team that's tried to distance itself, in some way, from Chief Wahoo. The franchise considered eliminating Chief Wahoo when it moved to Jacobs Field in 1994. Leading up to the 2019 season, he will have even more limited visibility as the team takes steps to abandon the image.

It's doubtful that many Cleveland baseball fans look at the symbol as celebrating racism. But for better or worse, that attitude has changed throughout the country. If an individual embraces a racist symbol, they are racist. We've lost the shades of grey that generally better define such discussions.

Chief lovers and mourners for both institutions are finding themselves adrift during a time when talk of sensitive issues becomes framed by the absolute of the hashtag culture.

Some can and will ignore any in-depth discussions about either Chief. The outside noise will have little effect as they go on with their lives. The Cleveland team will even continue to sell merchandise featuring Wahoo, so the symbol is OK for fans in the stands, but not for players on the field. That contradiction will provide a significant amount of ammunition for anti-Wahoo protesters.

Although some might view circumstances otherwise, the goal really isn't to give everyone the right to not be offended. What's significant is allowing the aggrieved that opportunity to be heard. The extremists on either side will never be satisfied, and can be easily ignored.

Certainly at places closer to the middle of the discussion, there's room for those shades of grey.

This editorial represents the collective opinion of editorial boards of the following papers owned by Lee Enterprises: The Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale; The Pantagraph, Bloomington; Herald & Review, Decatur; Quad-City Times; Journal-Gazette & Times-Courier, Mattoon; and The Dispatch-Rock Island Argus.


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