Chiefs make a stand
Exeter keep Native American branding but drop mascot
Exeter Chiefs have refused to bow to pressure to change their branding after an internal review found that their iconography is “in fact highly respectful” to Native American people.
However, after a lengthy board meeting yesterday, the Gallagher Premiership leaders have decided to retire their mascot, Big Chief, as “a mark of respect”.
The club’s use of Native American imagery within their crest had come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier this month, Washington’s NFL franchise decided to drop their “Redskins” moniker. Yet after compiling a “detailed dossier” the board concluded that it was not offensive.
That brought immediate condemnation from the Exeter Chiefs For Change pressure group which said the decision was “tone deaf” and “sticks two fingers up not only to them [Native Americans] but to all minorities”.
In 1999, Exeter adopted the Chiefs name which is a reference to how first XVs are traditionally referred to in Devon. They since completed a fairy-tale rise from the lower reaches of the National Leagues to become Premiership champions in 2017. As the only Premiership club to consistently turn a profit before the coronavirus pandemic, they have been held up as a model club in many respects.
Controversy over their emblem and mascot, which both feature a Native American male with a headdress, has been bubbling away for a few years, but came to a head this summer with the Black Lives Matter movement shining the spotlight on potentially racist symbols and figures within British life.
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw leant his support to a petition set up by fans calling for a branding change, calling it a “very well-argued and timely request for a long overdue review”.
Some marketing experts have estimated that it would cost the club £1 million to commit to a full rebrand, although this figure has been disputed by other industry figures. Exeter chairman Tony Rowe has consistently resisted calls for change but the club did convene a board meeting yesterday after gathering a wide range of views.
A club statement said: “Part of the club’s review has seen the club engage with its sponsors and key partners to seek their views – and they have also listened to the response of our supporters, the wider rugby community and certain sections from the Native American
‘This will not age well for the club – they are lining themselves up for damage’
community, all of whom have provided us with detailed observations in letters, emails, social content and videos.
“Content provided to the board indicated that the name Chiefs dated back into the early 1900s and had a long history with people in the Devon area. The board took the view that the use of the Chiefs logo was in fact highly respectful. It was noted over the years we have had players and coaches from around the world with a wide range of nationalities and cultures. At no time have any players, coaches or their families said anything but positive comments about the branding or culture that exists at the club.
“The one aspect which the board felt could be regarded as disrespectful was the club’s mascot ‘Big Chief ’ and as a mark of respect have decided to retire him.”
Exeter provided no indication of whether they would discourage supporters from wearing Native American headdresses or performing the “Tomahawk Chop”.
The Exeter Chiefs For Change petition attracted more than 3,500 signatures, although rival petitions have been launched, calling for the name to be kept.
The Exeter Chiefs for Change group insists Exeter will eventually bow to change. “It’s incredibly disappointing that Exeter Chiefs has thrown away this opportunity to show itself as an inclusive club,” the group said. “Indigenous peoples have made it clear time and time again that all uses of their imagery in this way are offensive, harmful and unacceptable. Exeter’s refusal to fully listen to these pleas is tone deaf and sticks two fingers up not only to them but to all minorities.
“This decision will not age well for the club – there is no doubt that the branding will eventually have to change as it is clear depictions like this are no different from gollies and other relics of the past. By refusing to deal with it properly now, the club are lining themselves up for extensive reputational and commercial damage.”
Retired: Exeter’s mascot, Big Chief, in the tunnel during a Champions Cup game against Sale at Sandy Park last December