A look at the debate surrounding the Premiership club's branding

Face-Off: Is Exeter Chiefs’ branding appropriate?

Exeter Chiefs’ branding has been put under the microscope again recently as a group of supporters set up a petition calling for the club to “drop its racist use of Indigenous Peoples’ imagery & branding”.

The club discussed the issue at their latest board meeting and while deciding to retain the name and logo have opted to retire the club’s mascot ‘Big Chief’.

Exeter said in a statement: “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 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.”

Is Exeter Chiefs’ branding appropriate?

Retired: Big Chief will no longer be the Exeter Chiefs mascot (Getty Images)

Exeter Chiefs for Change, who have led calls for the branding to be changed, have expressed their dismay at the decision.

A spokesperson said: “It is incredibly disappointing that Exeter Chiefs has thrown away this opportunity to show itself as an inclusive club. 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.

“We accept that the intention of the club for the branding was originally positive and not derogatory, but now they know it is not perceived in that way, they are making a conscious decision to be intentionally offensive by continuing to use it. The club claims that the imagery honours and respect the Indigenous cultures, but if they respect them why won’t they listen to them?

“As fans we are disappointed and frustrated that this battle continues. As human beings we are horrified that we still live in a society where a major sports club can treat Indigenous Peoples like this. It reflects badly on rugby, Devon and the UK, and we should all be thoroughly ashamed.”

Face-Off: Is Exeter Chiefs’ branding appropriate?

Rugby World magazine covered this topic back in 2017 – and here are both sides of the debate on the branding of one of England’s biggest clubs that we ran three years ago…

Runs bloodandmud.com

Exeter Chiefs claim their use of Native American imagery is not offensive and respects their culture. This falls into the logical fallacy: “If I don’t mean it to be offensive, it isn’t.”

Many Native North Americans find appropriation and misuse of their culture offensive – it defies efforts to reclaim their identity after centuries of discrimination. Using Native symbols in sports is maybe the most noticeable example of ‘Disneyfication’ – creating stereotypes that enforce misunderstanding and prejudice.

Chiefs repeatedly ignore voices that ask them to reconsider the branding. Their nickname predates the official adoption of the branding in 1999. How hard would it be to keep the name but base any imagery on something more relevant – such as the ancient Celtic people of Devon, the Dumnonii?

English rugby wants to appear inclusive and plans to expand into the US, but their branding complicates both aims. Nobody thinks Exeter and their fans are intentionally offensive, but they’re on the wrong side of history and it’s time to change.

Related: Are artificial pitches good for rugby?

Passionate fan in rural Devon

It’s a tradition in the South-West for clubs to call first XVs ‘Chiefs’. Thus we have Sidmouth Chiefs, Barnstable Chiefs and, of course, Exeter Chiefs.

Since professionalism arrived, an instantly recognisable logo is required to identify teams nationally. In Exeter’s case, what better than the striking profile of a proud Native Chief?

There is certainly no intention to offend the sensitivities of the Native American Nation. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” go the immortal words of William Shakespeare.

I applaud and respect the pride and rich traditions of the Native North Americans, their culture and their history. I believe the good people of Exeter rugby club feel the same.

Dee Brown’s book, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, epitomises the brutal manner in which 19th Century American expansionism abused, mutilated and killed Native Americans. Surely the current Nation has more important issues of consternation?

Please stop trying to rip the heart out of an honest, proud and decent club.

This first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Rugby World.

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s September edition.