In recent years, both the MLB team in Cleveland and the NFL team in Washington have bowed to pressure, changing their names to the Guardians and the Commanders respectively, having previously used names that were considered to be offensive to Native American communities by many.
In turn, this has led to renewed calls for other sports teams, particularly at the professional level, that use terminology and imagery connected to Native American history and culture to also change their names.
Most prominently, questions have been asked about the names of the NFL team in Kansas City, the NHL team in Chicago and MLB’s own Atlanta Braves.
In the first of a new Roundtable Series of articles, several of our contributors will each give their perspective on an issue affecting baseball.
In this article, Atlanta Braves fan and first-time contributor Charlie Deeks, BFN podcaster and Cleveland Guardians fan Russell Eassom, New Mets contributor and Washington Commanders fan Josh Edwards, and Oakland Athletics contributor and Chicago Blackhawks fan Brett Walker will all give their take on why the Braves need to change their name and connected iconography.
The Braves’ case is slightly different from the cases of Cleveland and the Washington football team. Both of those names were unquestionably (but maybe to differing degrees) derogatory terms. Being derived from Native American tribes or terms, teams like the Braves, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks all have less concrete reasons to change their name. While a name change might be relatively widely supported, it might not be necessary.
Firstly, there’s no consensus among Native Americans about whether the name is offensive. For every group that is vocal in opposition to the name, another is supportive. And while polling to understand Native American views on the Braves name is tricky, mostly due to sample sizes and issues around self-identification, there are no polls that show a weight of feeling against the Braves name.
Just because this evidence doesn’t currently exist, that doesn’t mean the Braves are off the hook. The commissioner Rob Manfred certainly isn’t helping by blindly affirming that:
“The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including ‘The Chop.’”Rob Manfred, 2021
A statement of this strength just can’t be true, and only enflames tensions among those who passionately believe the team should change their name. By also mentioning The Chop in the same way – which anecdotally seems to be a much bigger issue among Native American groups – it makes Manfred, and the MLB by extension, look out of touch. Banning the Chop or the use of Native American caricature by fans might well be a good move – but in erasing Native American influences entirely, as the Native American Guardian’s Association argues, a real opportunity to inform and educate people about Native American culture and history could be lost.
As Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) notes, there are far greater issues facing Native American people, including poverty, unemployment, child abuse, sexual assaults and suicide. He says:
“I’m just not [offended by the Braves name]. If somebody is, that’s their prerogative, it’s their right. … But at the end of the day, we’ve got bigger issues to deal with. … There’s just so much happening and the frustrating part for me as a tribal leader is when the only issue that seems to be discussed is … ‘How offended are you by the chop and should the Braves change their name?’ … Really, it’s the least of our problems, I guess is what I’m saying.”Richard Sneed, 2021
Instead of a name change, the Braves have a great opportunity to position themselves as a powerful ally to all Native American people, by providing social and fiscal assistance. In doing so, they would help to solve the serious problems facing Native American people on a daily basis – which would be far more powerful than just changing their name and pretending those problems don’t exist.
The Braves have done a decent job so far, allying with the EBCI, establishing and funding a Native American Working Group that advises team leadership and builds relationships in the community, and contributing to the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns, which aims to preserve and enhance Native American cultural heritage, as well as holding various ballpark events celebrating Native Americans, but this is an organisation that makes over $100m in profits annually.
Changing the name and severing ties with Native American groups is a get out of jail free card. The Braves can and should be going much further.
I chose to be a Cleveland fan back in 2012 and, if I’m honest, the issues with the ‘Indians’ name and the Chief Wahoo mascot never even crossed my mind when making the decision.
But, after following for a few years, it started to feel a bit off, especially on Chief Wahoo. I know some people will say it had a heritage behind the name and ‘good’ historic reasons behind it but, whenever you read any investigation of these claims, they didn’t seem to actually be true.
Given I had no long-held attachment to either, the removal of this mascot and subsequent renaming of the team felt the right thing to do to me.
My only issue was that Cleveland didn’t radically change the name and the colours – this allows older fans to still wear the jerseys as they match the colour scheme. So removing the name changed the outward image, but the in-stadium image hasn’t changed rapidly.
People still wore clothing with the Chief on it in 2022. It will take quite some time before the “Indians” jerseys aren’t worn in reasonable numbers.
As for the Braves, I have much less of an issue with the name but massive issues with the chop, the chanting and the tomahawk logo.
The chop and chant to me are beyond just cultural appropriation, they are very problematic. Atlanta knows this as well, you won’t see TV coverage of it because it’s now done solely during innings breaks or pitching changes.
Whether this is down to the Braves organisation or the TV broadcasters not wanting it to be shown on their coverage, there is an understanding out there that they and others don’t want to publicise it anymore.
In the end, money and sponsorship talks and that’s what I think will eventually make Atlanta change the name, even if that is never said publicly.
As a Washington football fan, I’ve a long and complicated history with name-change. When I was 15, I met Chief Zee, a non-Native American, unofficial fan mascot of the team from the glory years; a seminal moment in my fandom. Years later, I look back on that moment with a mixture of bemusement and some regret. I once advocated for a non-pejorative dictionary definition of ‘Redskin’: Noun, member of pro Football team in Washington. Now that feels like spectacularly missing the point.
I never felt that ‘Braves’ was as clear cut an issue, and still don’t. But what has changed is the willingness in some quarters to recognise that, if not outrightly racist or offensive, then ‘Braves’ and the associated appropriation is undoubtedly problematic. I strongly believe that is a defensible position.
The aforementioned community outreach by the Braves is commendable and, unsurprisingly, far more sincere than Washington Commanders’ owner Dan Snyder’s performative efforts. But to what end? The Braves have been in this holding pattern for years. Perhaps decisive action is necessary. A name change and a concerted move away from The Chop feels timely, if not necessarily wholly imperative. Some fans will continue to do The Chop for a time, much like some Washington fans still sing ‘Hail To The Redskins’. But with time and the right dialogue, this might slowly fizzle out.
In a murky space, if one thing is certain to me, it’s the need to continually educate ourselves on Native American culture and engage with Native American groups in an effort to better understand the right way forward. There are people on both sides of this debate who remain ignorant, wilfully or otherwise, of Native American history, customs, traditions, and their contemporary position in the socio-economic milieu in the United States.
Trying to change that feels like agreeable progress in the first instance.
Cleveland’s MLB team rightly went through a process in recent years, first stopping the use of its deeply offensive and cartoonish Chief Wahoo logo before also removing a name that was offensive to Native Americans to instead become the Guardians.
While Atlanta’s team name may not be as offensive, it is still derived from the Native American population, which is why the team’s fans imitate Native American chanting during home games and use a chop gesture.
As Brett Chapman, a Native American rights attorney of Ponca, Kiowa and Pawnee heritage, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in comments also reported in The Washington Post when asked about Atlanta’s team name;
“Everything kind of flows from that name. So as long as you’ve got this Native American-type mascot, name or any imagery, that’s going to happen. That chanting’s going to happen, the Tomahawk Chop’s going to happen.”Brett Chapman, 2021
The same is also true of last night’s Super Bowl winners, the Kansas City Chiefs. While I do not support the Chiefs, I would love to see a game live at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, as Chiefs’ games undoubtedly have a wonderful atmosphere. The thing that gives me pause though is that wonderful atmosphere is largely created by a predominantly white crowd, some of whom are in fancy dress, imitating a Native American chant and doing a chop gesture;
As Brett Chapman alluded to, the same is also true in Atlanta;
Furthermore, while I personally never witnessed it myself when watching games live at the United Center, the same has also been true of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks in the past, leading to the organisation banning the wearing of Native American headdresses to games;
To this point, I admittedly come at this entire issue as someone who is an increasingly unenthusiastic Chicago Blackhawks fan. As much as I want the team to do well, the way that the organisation responded to renewed calls to change the team’s name in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the protests it gave rise to had a chilling effect on my fandom. Specifically, in the statement, the organisation says it will “continue to serve as stewards of our name and identity, and will do so with a commitment to evolve.”
While the organisation does have a range of initiatives aimed at educating fans about the history of Native Americans and their contributions to American culture and society, if the organisation truly wanted to ‘evolve’, it would recognise that, while nowhere near as offensive a depiction as Chief Wahoo, the team’s primary logo is still a cartoonish depiction of a smiling Native American, and would, at the very least, change or discontinue its use of that logo.
I then reassessed some of the statements from Native American community leaders voicing their support for the team being named after tribal chief Black Hawk that had quelled my discomfort years ago. For example, Scott Sypolt, executive counsel for the American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC), said in 2015;
“There is a consensus among us that there’s a huge distinction between a sports team called the Redskins depicting native people as red, screaming, ignorant savages and a group like the Blackhawks honoring Black Hawk, a true Illinois historical figure.”Scott Sypolt, 2015
In addition, Joseph Podlasek, the AIC’s executive director at the time, said; “I am OK with both (the name and Indian head logo) as long as the educational process continues.”
However, it should be noted that Podlasek had previously said in 2010 that he wanted the team to change its name and logo, his positive comments came after the team’s charitable foundation had contributed $60,000 to build a recreation centre inside the AIC’s North Side building, and the AIC then cut all ties with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019.
That is why, while Charlie makes a compelling argument, and I see the value in much of what he says, I have to disagree with him on a crucial ideological point.
Charlie says it himself; some in the Native American community are vocal in their opposition. Regardless of if an organisation partners with local Native American organisations or provides funding for initiatives, by not changing the name, those in power and in position to make a change are essentially ignoring and discounting the views of those who oppose the team continuing to use that name, and saying their opinions and their feelings don’t count. Telling members of an historically opposed community in America that what they think and feel doesn’t matter is something I can’t abide.
Ultimately, it comes down to what kind of society we want to live in as well; one where we have professional major league sports team that appropriate terminology and iconography of a historically marginalised and opposed community that we know offends some, if not all, of the people in those communities, or one where we respect all members of those communities and their feelings, and do everything we can as a society to right the wrongs that were committed against those communities, including changing the names of sports teams at all levels – professional, college and high school – that have appropriated those communities and their cultures?
Finally, I want to give the last word on this issue to St Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a Cherokee Nation member. Speaking to the St. Louis Dispatch during the 2019 National League Division Series between the Braves and the Cardinals, he called out the Braves for their continued acceptance of Native American chants at home games;
“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. 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 it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that. That’s the disappointing part. That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful.”Ryan Halsley, 2019
Featured image – Carman Mandato for Getty Images
Charlie is BFN’s Atlanta Brave contributor and can be found on Twitter @Omashaft.
Russell is one of the hosts of the BFN Podcast and can be found on Twitter @REassom.
Josh is BFN’s New York Mets contributor and can be found on Twitter @Joshwa_1990.
Brett is BFN’s Oakland A’s contributor and can be found on Twitter @BrettChatsSport.