Round-up: The Chop, Commissioners, MLB for cord cutters

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I wrote about the failure that is the Tomahawk Chop making its way to the 2021 World Series back on Monday, but I certainly have not been alone this week in publishing pieces on the subject. Rob Manfred opened his mouth before Game 1 to let some bullshit spill out, about how MLB’s teams only market themselves regionally, and therefore no one outside of Georgia should be concerned with the chop, but also, Native Americans everywhere definitely support the chop; that certainly gave some folks an angle to work with.

Clinton Yates was one of those people, for The Undefeated, in a piece headlined, “Manfred misses the mark with Braves.” The focus here is on how the chop and MLB’s insistence that this is all progress and everyone who needs to be fine with the chop is fine with it is simply an extension of white supremacy. Yates also spoke with Natalie Welch, who participated in the video MLB and the Braves are now touting as proof that the chop has the seal of approval of Native Americans:

“It was right around the time the WFT announced their change and I selfishly wanted to be involved and see if I could help make sure we didn’t get embarrassed. I went back home for the filming, signed the consent, chatted with their crew and felt pretty good about it,” Natalie Welch said Wednesday. From Cherokee, North Carolina, she’s a member of the EBCI and assistant professor of sport management at Linfield University in Oregon. “When the video came out, I immediately felt gutted. There were so many fans who just responded ‘chop on!’ or it completely fell on deaf ears. It was like a free pass for them to continue to appropriate and perpetuate racism. I watched as our chief continued to tout the relationship and the team did a T-shirt fundraiser for our language immersion school. It’s hard to argue against those benefits, but to me it’s not worth it for my tribe to benefit while other tribes don’t and it keeps the continued oppression cycle going for other tribes, communities and Indigenous individuals.”

There’s more from both Yates and Welch within, and plenty to chew on even if you’re already convinced that the chop needs to go and even the team’s name needs to be changed in order to ensure that the chop can be stopped.

Steven Goldman also wrote about the chop for Baseball Prospectus, and the headline there tells you about all you need to know about where the story is going: “If you need to ask, it’s probably racist.” The focus here is on, well, I’ll let Steve tell you:

The idea that that choice can be validated via the appropriators asking the appropriated-from how they feel about it is an evasion of responsibility on two levels. We don’t outsource morality to others before we act. If we are well-socialized, we know the difference between right and wrong. Rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, a national pastime could choose to be a national good. In other words, MLB could do what’s right instead of what’s expedient, and encourage its customers to be better; to look beyond the provincialism that Manfred is embracing and find some empathy. If that costs the Braves—as much a real-estate operation as a ballclub—a few pennies, so be it.

If empathy is in short supply, perhaps common sense will answer. The chop is reductionist. It is inaccurate. It is acting out a parodic version of a people which, at the time Georgia and the federal government dispossessed them, did not wield tomahawks but rather were yeoman farmers and Christians, just like those who coveted their lands.

Combine what Goldman is saying here with what Welch told Yates about the benefits of her tribe playing nice with the Braves and the “Third World”level  poverty of many tribes in the United States, and you are forced to consider the power dynamics in play here. The Braves say they’ve been “having conversations” with local Native groups, but it sounds more like they were finding someone they could exploit and point to as justification for their own actions and depiction of Native Americans. The National Congress of American Indians is actively requesting that the chop not be displayed on national television during the World Series, while rebutting what Manfred said about local marketing and so on, but you can be sure that Manfred, the Braves, and probably FOX, too, are all going to sit there pretending they didn’t hear a thing. After all, the chop already received all the support it needed to persist, didn’t it?

The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner wrote a piece that published on Thursday titled, “Sports commissioners are businessmen, not moral compasses. Stop hoping for more.” It isn’t a defense of commissioners, by any means, but more a recognition of the reality of their role and what it is they are fighting to protect:

Fans might expect the men in charge of the four major North American pro sports leagues, the NBA included, to step up and act whenever something or someone denigrates the purity of the game, or when societal right-and-wrongs seep into the sport. When sign-stealers and cheaters prosper or toxic hockey culture prevails, the natural reaction is to cry out for justice. Though we can boo lustily or let our dollars do the talking, there’s only so much power a spectator in the bleachers or a viewer at home can wield. The real juice belongs in the midtown Manhattan headquarters where the “Big Four” commissioners rule over billion-dollar television deals.

They are commissioners, not superheroes. They throw on capes to protect the interests of the owners — or to take blows on their behalf — not to safeguard the league from the immoral.

The commissioners of the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB work for the owners, and that’s what basically every decision comes down to in the end. The Astros got to keep their World Series championship and owner Jim Crane was fined a pittance in part because Rob Manfred works for him, and the other 29 owners, as upset about Crane as they were, knew better than to make too big a fuss about the light punishment since they wanted the same treatment themselves when their turn comes up for whatever reason. Manfred isn’t going to attack the Braves or the chop, because nothing they are doing is so openly and obviously egregious as Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo logo — which is not to say the chop or the culture the team name creates are fine, it’s more that MLB is in a better position to play defense for the Braves than they were with the Indians.

I can understand the desire to hope for more from the commissioners, but they are men working, historically, for the rich and powerful and self-absorbed, for the kind of conservatives that world breeds, selected in part because it is believed they will carry out the will of those very folks. Manfred et al will respond in a more progressive way when that’s where the money is, and only then. When something can be secreted away, or ignored, or defended even though it is obvious every word shielding it is an obvious lie, and all without the consequence of lost revenue, then that’s what will be done by commissioners.

About the only way to get better commissioners is to have better owners, and to have better owners, you’re going to need leagues owned and operated by the players themselves. And that’s not necessarily a guarantee of less conservative views or business practices, either, especially not in a sport with MLB’s player demographics and the stifling pressures of its built-in, remember-the-good-old-days, it’s-a-game-for-white-men seriousness. But it’s going to be a hell of a lot better than having the capitalists who are excited about their new tax dodge in charge.

This is worth keeping an eye on, though details are obviously scarce at this early stage: MLB is looking to launch a nationwide streaming service so fans can watch home games without access to cable. I mean I know Rob Manfred just said that teams only market regionally, so this decision doesn’t make much sense considering that context, but he was never really one for consistency.

There are obviously many hurdles to consider — existing television contracts that did not expect to be competing with a service designed for cord-cutters, that someone as powerful as (and maybe as desperate as, considering their recent woes) Sinclair now controls so many of the regional sports networks, that MLB would potentially be partnering with other major sports leagues for this project, that blackouts are a thing that exist within those current TV deals — but this is the rare positive step for MLB in making their game available to more people. MLBAM’s creation of was well ahead of its time to the point that it became the foundation for multiple other streaming services, in sports (the NHL, WWE) and outside of them (Disney+), but it also came out many, many years ago now. It’s time for the next step in reaching fans outside of the ones MLB traditionally can get to.

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