Panel Q&A: Why there's an 'ethical imperative' to stop the Atlanta chop

Atlanta Braves fans cheer during the sixth inning in Game 4 of the 2020 NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Despite entering the post-season with the worst record of any MLB playoff team, the Atlanta Braves have the opportunity to win their first World Series title in a quarter century. Their Cinderella story should be the only story – especially while facing a Houston Astros team still despised after an organization-wide cheating scandal.

Yet, that’s not the only story and it’s not easy to get behind the Braves precisely because they are called the Braves. Making matters worse, they’ve allowed and even encouraged fans to chant and chop during the 2021 season, perpetuating racist stereotypes in the process.

At home games, the team has been using digital tomahawk chop visuals accompanied with a drum beat during big moments. First used in the early 1990s, the chop has drawn increased scrutiny as sensibilities have changed and awareness has increased over time.

The organizational indifference flies in the face of the trend of organizations like the Washington Football Team, Edmonton Elks and Cleveland Guardians changing their team names. As the World Series moves to Atlanta for Game 3, the platform of the playoffs amplifies a conversation that’s been building in Atlanta for some time.

During Atlanta’s 2019 National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ryan Helsley, a Cardinals relief pitcher, and a member of the Cherokee Nation, referred to the chop and chant as “disrespectful.”

“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general. Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time. “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 it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way or used as mascots.”

On the eve of the World Series, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred weighed in.

"It's important to understand that we have 30 markets around the country. They're not all the same," he said. "The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community. The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. And for me that's kind of the end of the story. In that market, taking into account the Native American community, it works."

His assertion that the community is “wholly supportive” of the chop is unsubstantiated, however.

"That's just so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood," Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2019. "Let's move on. Find something else."

In Atlanta, they’ve made some changes around the margins. The team replaced “Chop On” as a marketing slogan with “For the A” and removed a large wooden “Chop On” sign from the stadium last year. There is a Cherokee exhibit at Truist Park and the team sells a T-shirt that reads “ballplayer” in Cherokee with the proceeds going towards the Cherokee Indians Speakers Council and the New Kituwah Academy.

Last year an in-depth report by the AJC found that within the Native American community, there are varied opinions on the team name and associated imagery. Some groups called for the team to change its name and end the use of the chop. Others had an issue with the chop but not the name. Some weren’t offended at all.

When Games 3, 4 and 5 of the best-of-seven World Series come around this weekend, the conversation around the proceedings at Truist Park will be about much more than baseball. And that’s not just because Donald Trump will be in attendance as a VIP guest.

So, we asked those from the very diverse Indigenous communities to weigh in on what’s no longer acceptable and what the best way forward might be.

Stacey LaForme is the Gimaa (Chief) of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and has been dealing with the same issue with the Mississauga Blackhawks of the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

Jennifer Adese (Métis) is a Canada Research Chair and associate professor at University of Toronto, Mississauga.

Angela Mashford-Pringle is an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto and the Associate Director for the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health.

Sportsnet - Do you feel the Atlanta Braves name, logo, and tomahawk chop are problematic?

Chief LaForme - I do. Harmful stereotypes such as the tomahawk chop have no place in sports; sports are supposed to be something that brings us together, that we are to enjoy. These conversations about names, logos, and fan traditions are far overdue but I am glad they are finally happening, and we are starting to see some change.

Jennifer Adese - Absolutely. Not only are they problematic, but they are also racist and perpetuate racial stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. I'm surprised in 2021 we still need to have this conversation. If other franchises have figured it out, they need to, too.

Angela Mashford-Pringle - There are many problematic sports teams’ names. The history of the Atlanta area for Cherokee peoples starts with the murders and the pushing of communities far from the area. The Georgia Senator in the 1800s was determined to rid the territory of Indigenous peoples by any means necessary. This is part of what lead to the Trail of Tears in 1838 where thousands of Cherokee peoples were forced on foot without a chance to bring any belongings to march across the country to Oklahoma in the winter. Thousands of people died from the trip west. Atlanta was colonized to the area we know today.

SN - Does it matter that not all members of Indigenous communities find the name to be offensive?

CL - If you have an image associated with Indigenous people, you should be talking to those Indigenous people and finding out about the culture, heritage, respecting it, honouring it, and actually getting permission. If not all Indigenous people find this to be offensive, that is their opinion, and they have a right to it. But for those who do, it is important to take their feelings and concerns into consideration and discuss with them on how to move forward.

JA - Nope. No single person can speak for all Indigenous peoples. Even if Indigenous peoples weren't saying that it's offensive and racist, common sense should tell us that racist representations of Indigenous peoples is wrong and cause harm. And that's certainly not the case. Many, many, many Indigenous peoples have been working to see sports franchises be more accountable for mocking Indigenous peoples through racist representation.

SN - Would it make a difference if the team had more Indigenous representation on the field and in their organization?

CL - I think more Indigenous voices are needed across all major sports leagues. Our local teams do a lot of talk of reconciliation and are starting with steps in the right direction such as land acknowledgements, but it doesn’t stop there. We need these voices to teach these organizations the steps they can take to move forward to help with reconciliation.

JA - Well, that depends. Are the name, the logo, and the 'chop' going to be excised? If not, it's a band-aid solution that potentially puts Indigenous players and staff in a hostile situation via having to confront deeply entrenched racist ideologies - and at minimum the idea that certain forms of racism are 'acceptable.'

SN - If you were advising the team on a course of action moving forward, what would you say?

CL - Racism in sports doesn’t just go away when you take a symbol down or stop doing an offensive chant or movement. You need education, relationship building, and understanding with the local communities. Reconciliation takes time and effort, continue to involve local Indigenous communities moving forward, and have Indigenous voices at decision making tables.

JA - I would remind them that other franchises have changed their names, their logos, and their culture. The Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder with a franchise move and the world didn't end. The Washington Football Team is in the process of making these changes, and the Edmonton Elks haven't suffered for the name change. Names and logos change. Fan dedication is to the sport, to the players, to the camaraderie built among sports fans.

This is why we have franchises in so many different cities - the name and logo, especially for non-Indigenous peoples, is incidental to the experience of being a sports fan. It's not the name or the logo or even the racist arm-swinging. It's the experience of being with family and friends and among their communities - united in a way and for a common cause that we rarely see among human societies at such a level.

I think it points to the fact that people want experiences, memories, and connection with each other. With community engagement and digging deep to think about what truly represents Atlanta and Atlanteans in the present, this could lead to a profound change that also demonstrates respect for Indigenous peoples.

Had it never been racist and contributed to such racist stereotyping, fans wouldn't have known the difference. But it exists and there is a moral and ethical imperative for the franchise to change and to be accountable to all.

AMP - While Canada still has a way to go to learn the history of Indigenous peoples, there seems to be a larger lack of knowledge about Indigenous peoples in the United States. The Atlanta organization should even take cultural safety training which entails self-reflection, understanding their power, privilege and position, and active listening – then they can understand the horrific history of the Cherokee in Atlanta and how using “Braves,” or the tomahawk chop are offensive and demeaning – especially when used in a sporting event.

SN - What should allies do in relation to the Braves or other teams who are still using Native American imagery for their logos?

CL - Continue to use your voice, now more than ever it is so important. We have seen with the Washington Football Team, the Cleveland Baseball team, the Edmonton Elks, that the change of harmful stereotypes in sports is possible.

JA - We've seen that the pressure applied through the mobilization of people on social media makes a difference. Corporations inevitably respond to such pressures because their bottom line is to protect profits and mass discontent easily circulated via media threatens that. Yet, surprisingly, it hasn't worked to date. Boycotts help, but there have to be more fulsome visions of what that looks like i.e., businesses need to, for one, commit to halting the sale of what many have argued is, actually, "hate" propaganda.

AMP - For allies, keep advocating! Tell sponsors like FedEx or Nike that it’s inappropriate – part of everyone’s power is their purchasing power! Talk with your money! Don’t buy team merchandise, don’t buy the sponsors’ goods or services. Speak up and tell the owners of the teams that this is inappropriate, and you want change. It will always make some angry, but it is where we are in 2021!

SN - How important is education through sport?

CL - It’s very important. Organizations and athletes are given a large platform and it is important to use that platform to stand for something larger than the game itself. Sports is not just about winning and losing, with sports you have the ability to make a difference. They have the opportunity to influence the next generation, and with that comes responsibility. By continuing to put Indigenous people in the place of mascots and logos you are further taking our current success, struggles, and lives out of context and keeping us in the past.

JA - Very. Inasmuch as sports are rooted in individualism and competition they are also often about teamwork and community-building with other athletes. But being a good sport means making sure we're all playing on a level field. Racist representations undermine these foundational core ideals of sports and athleticism.

AMP - Watching the Montreal Canadiens put a land acknowledgement up recently, shows respect and an understanding that we are all treaty peoples who need to be environmental stewards of Turtle Island. If sports teams and sports media spend a little time adding some information into their reporting, I think it can only help. However, it has to be measured and must pertain to the situation, otherwise people will tune out, or worse, become defensive or evasive about the information being shared.

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