The Braves’ half-hearted response to obvious racism is telling

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On Monday, I wrote about the Washington football team looking like they’re finally going to change their name — which is currently a racial slur — because FedEx threatened to pull sponsorship. That was the preamble for the real point of the piece, which is that these Native-based team names — including the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves — need to change even if they seem comparatively innocuous to A Literal Racial Slur. That’s because it will help to dismantle the absolutely racist tradition of “honoring” Native Americans by appropriating their iconography and creating a culture where white people in redface and headdresses banging on drums and dismissing the concerns of actual, living Natives is all considered acceptable.

The Braves do not agree, according to Ken Rosenthal. They’re focused on figuring out how best to address the deployment of the Tomahawk Chop, a racist chant that’s generally under fire but was brought closer to the flame last October, when Cardinals’ reliever Ryan Helsley criticized it during the postseason.

Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had to listen to a stadium full of Braves’ fans chanting and chopping while he was on the mound:

“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said. “Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that. It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots.”

In response, the Braves didn’t distribute the customary foam tomahawks used during the chant before Game 5 of the National League Division Series, but they only stopped playing the music for the chop while Helsley was on the mound: acknowledging the issue and then barely addressing it seems to be how they operate, because it’s all this time later and they’re still just in the conversation stage regarding the chop, despite those conversations happening with the National Congress of American Indians, of which the Cherokee Nation is a member.

Here is a good plan for how to handle the chop: stop doing it. And much time was saved by all.

The thing is that the Braves, like Cleveland, like the Chiefs, like Washington, all want to figure out the way to best profit off of their racism without coming off as racist in the process. They already have established fan bases with many of those fans (not all; there are plenty of fans of these teams who are geographically tethered to them and their memories of them, even if they feel shame at what the teams are named and stand for) perfectly happy to appropriate Natives and their iconography as mascots, as something to dress up as and act out, and the teams don’t want to miss out on the dollars those fans bring them. Why do you think it took FedEx and a bunch of other sponsors speaking up for Washington’s owner, Dan Snyder, to even consider budging on the racist team name he’s clung to for over 20 years now? Money is the point. The only point.

So, the Braves won’t just get rid of the chop outright, even after knowing and admitting that it’s a problem, because, well, some paying customers like the chop. The Cleveland Indians might have gotten rid of their racist caricature of a mascot and logo, Chief Wahoo, but they’re still making “retro” Wahoo gear to sell locally, and the claim is that it’s in order to protect their trademark for the logo. Hey, if someone is going to profit off of a horrifically racist caricature of a Native American, you’re damn right it’s going to be a sports team and not some knockoff t-shirt maker who prints them up in his garage. Racism is important to fight, and that’s why it needs to be profited on by professionals.

It’s a positive that Rosenthal’s column centers the reaction and desires of the NCAI instead of Atlanta’s executives, because that keeps the article from being primarily about how the team feels about the chop and their name. Instead, Rosenthal introduces the article with the Braves’ lack of action, and then lets NCAI quotes do much of the rest of the talking, adding additional context where appropriate. You know, like journalism or something:

But for some Native American leaders, a subtle shift away from the “Chop” might not be enough.

“Federally recognized tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, will continue to speak out urging both MLB and the Atlanta Braves organization to move away from any and all depictions of Native Americans as mascots, in chants and any other form of team promotion,” [Chuck Hoskin Jr.] said.

“The time for meaningful dialogue on cultural appropriateness of Native Americans in this country is long overdue. When the largest federally recognized tribes, and tribal organizations in this country are asking for change, we hope that resonates with these organizations, the Braves being one of them, and they consider a new team name.”

“We appreciate that the Atlanta Braves are trying to honor the Native community,” Hoskin said, “but the best way to honor us, is to stop the use of Native American depictions across sports.”

And the Braves’ lack of attention on that last point, from their still having conversations about the chop to the tomahawk on their jersey to the name plastered right next to it, tells you all you need to know about whether these teams’ intent is actually to honor Native Americans or not.

Change is only going to occur when these teams feel that it’s not financially wise to remain where they are. Even then, though, they are going to find workarounds to continue to profit off of racism, like Cleveland already has. Hell, they only got rid of Wahoo because MLB pressured them into changing their logo in order to host the All-Star Game last summer, and as already stated, are still making money off of and protecting their trademark of that caricature despite the “removal” of it. Atlanta isn’t feeling that kind of pressure yet, hence the feet-dragging. Washington is, though, it remains to be seen what the new name and direction looks like, and if it’s still appropriative, just not a slur. The Kansas City Chiefs haven’t made any noise about any changes. These conversations between teams and Native Americans may be ongoing, but they may also be one-sided, and like everything involving the appropriation of Native imagery, mostly for show. Please be impressed by all the work these teams have considered doing while they weren’t listening.

  • This piece by Howard Bryant on former A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell, his lack of support from other Black players during his protests of police brutality, the challenges Black players face in speaking up in a sport that doesn’t “need” them… it is A Lot, and also necessary reading even if you’re already aware of the issues discussed within.

  • United States Senator Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, wants to keep politics out of sports —don’t worry, you can take as long as you need to try to parse that sentence — and is critical of the league’s stance on Black Lives Matter. This woman who profits off of Black athletes thinks they don’t matter as anything besides a way for her to increase her wealth, and the players aren’t having it: they’ve called for her removal from the Dream’s ownership.

  • Loeffler, by the way, also told supporters that she supports “the constitutional rights that have been given to us by God” and I just want to apologize for the blood now shooting out of your ears.

  • MLB didn’t initially test players flying back from the Dominican Republic for spring training 2.0, and now, surprise, some of those players are now testing positive for coronavirus.

  • I want to reserve some space to blame the teams that definitely do not have to be doing any of this for what’s going on, but Hannah Keyser is right: blame the government.

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