Exeter Chiefs to retire 'Big Chief' mascot after review of branding

Exeter Chiefs mascot 'Big Chief' is being retired after a review of imagery at the club. Credit: ITV West Country

Bosses at Exeter Chiefs have decided to make just one change following a review of the rugby club's use of imagery of Native American peoples. They have agreed to retire their mascot 'Big Chief' as they accept he could be seen as disrespectful.

But some Native Americans who have been vocal on the issue say it isn't just the mascot that causes offence. Leandra Nephin from the Omaha tribe of Nebraska says:

"The headdresses that they're wearing, the mascot, the imagery, the branding, the logo, it's all problematic. There is no level that the mascot was more racist than the branding or the logo on the apparel, it's racist across the board and it doesn't deserve any place, especially in a nation that prides itself on inclusivity.

The review of the club's branding followed increasing pressure by groups for the rugby club to drop its use of what some people claim is racist imagery. A petition set up by Exeter Chiefs supporters backing the move has had more than 3,000 signatures.

Two counter petitions support the club's imagery saying it is about respect and honour to indigenous people.

Mark Vincent, who started one counter petition, says the branding was 'chosen as a symbol of strength, power, and honour'.

Ian Dunstan's petition says: "Exeter Chiefs fans wear their replica shirts and merchandise with pride of their team, and all that goes with it."

The board found that, contrary to critics, the use of the Chiefs logo was, in fact, highly respectful.

Ollie Devoto - wearing the club kit and Chiefs logo - about to score a try on 5 January 2020 Credit: PA

Here is the club statement in full:

The Exeter Rugby Club board today underwent a detailed review of the club’s branding following issues raised by the group Exeter Chiefs 4 Change.

 The process has included looking into lengthy submissions from those who wish to see immediate change and from those who are content that the current branding is not disrespectful to indigenous groups.

 A detailed dossier of all evidence was compiled ahead of today’s meeting and was seen by all members of the board and reviewed.

 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. 

Exeter Chiefs fans waving flags with the club logo on them - a Native American Indian chief Credit: ITV West Country

 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.

 The club will be making no further comment on the matter.

In response, a spokesperson for the campaign group, Exeter Chiefs for Change says:

“It’s 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 respects 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.

“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 is lining themselves up for extensive reputational and commercial damage and bringing shame on all connected to the club in the meantime. It’s baffling that they deem this a price worth paying for selfishly and ignorantly clinging to a poorly-thought out logo that’s only been only used for twenty of the club’s 150-years.”

Campaigners say failing to address the club's imagery will lead to problems in the future. Credit: ITV West Country