Last weekend Cardinals rookie reliever Ryan Helsley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, gave an interview with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in which Helsley said that he found the “Tomahawk Chop” cheer performed by Braves fans, and encouraged by the club with music and scoreboard prompts, to be disrespectful.
In response, the Braves responded by issuing a statement in which they said, “We appreciate and take seriously the concerns of Mr. Helsley,” and that they “will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the in-game experience, and look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community once the season comes to an end.”
Most people took this to be a bit of non-committal corporate speech, much like the sort the Braves have offered in the past to critics of its use of Native American iconography in general and the Tomahawk Chop in particular. Something to be said to make a controversy die down but nothing which has any sincerity behind it.
It seems, however, that they are taking it more seriously than we anticipated. From Goold at the Post-Disptach:
When fans arrived at SunTrust Park for Game 5 of the National League Division Series, one of the most important playoff games for the Atlanta Braves in more than a decade, there was something missing from their seats Wednesday, something subtle.
The foam tomahawks that had been placed at each seat before games 1 and 2 of this series against the Cardinals were not there this time.
Goold reports that, yes, the Braves removed the foam tomahawks in response to Helsley’s comments. They said there will be “other changes” during the in-game programming as well. It’s unclear if that means that the Braves will stop prompting fans to do the chop via the pumped-in music and all of that, but we’ll find out in a couple of hours.
As we have written in the past, there is no way for the Braves to prohibit fans from performing the gesture and raising the cheer which the club initiated nearly 30 years ago and which it has encouraged ever since. Fans can do it and I suspect will certainly still do it tonight, using their arms in a chopping motion rather than the foam tomahawks. They’ll probably do it even louder if Helsley gets in the game. Sensitivity on this score has never been the strong suit of most Braves fans and, when challenged, most have doubled or tripled down on what they feel is their right and duty to offend those who might take issue with them. In this they are like a lot of fan groups, sadly.
But the Braves do not have to, and should not, be encouraging it and amplifying it the way they have. Mostly because it is wildly insensitive and inappropriate in the year 2019 — or any year — for a professional sports organization to be associating itself with racist caricatures of Native American culture, be it in the form of a logo or a gesture. But also because Major League Baseball itself has already made it clear that they find such things inappropriate in the ballpark via their handling of the Chief Wahoo controversy with the Indians. Indeed, just last February Rob Manfred, in his own somewhat incoherent way, at least suggested that Major League Baseball would like to see the Braves cut it out. Not that he’s taken any steps to make that happen.
I have long suspected that if the Braves stopped with the organ music, the drums, the scoreboard prompts and the foam tomahawks that fans will continue to do the chop, but only for a while. Eventually it’ll die down and become far less prominent a part of the ballpark culture in Atlanta. It’ll recede into the same level of an occasional “Let’s go [team]” chant, occasionally initiated but never dominating the proceedings.
If today is the first step in that direction, it’s a very, very welcome development.
UPDATE: A good point or three about this was made on Twitter. The short version:
In taking today’s action, they have acknowledged — for the first time in 30 years as far as I can tell — that the Tomahawk Chop is racially insensitive. The impetus for doing so is that a specific Native American player complained. The Braves cannot, however, simply not do the Chop stuff for this game or future games in which Helsley appears, can they? I mean, your dad can choose not to tell racist jokes when minorities are within earshot, but a multi-billion dollar media/real estate/entertainment empire which beams its games all over the planet really can’t do that, can they?
Which is to say: good for the Braves here, but only if they carry through with this in the only logical way a moral actor can and eliminate the Chop entirely. Because now that they have acknowledged its offensiveness, it will, actually, be worse if they just do it for this game.
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