The decision to retire the Washington Redskins name raises the inevitable question: Will other teams follow suit? After all, the ex-‘Skins are but one of many teams that have named themselves after the indigenous peoples of North America.
At the professional level alone, there are the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Chiefs, not to mention the numerous college teams and high school teams that use American Indians as their mascot. Given the sheer momentum of the movement in favor of abandoning the use of American Indian imagery in sports teams, it seems impossible for other teams not to follow the same trajectory as the Redskins.
For now, however, at least one team insists it won’t be changing its name. In an email to season ticket-holders, the Atlanta Braves cited its “active and supportive relationship with the Native American community,” suggesting that there exists widespread support for maintaining its name. So, all is well in Braves Country, right?
Maybe not. In the same letter, the team also stated it was addressing the “Tomahawk Chop” and its associated chant with an advisory group comprised of American Indians. While the statement alone doesn’t suggest the Chop is about to be cut, it certainly opens the door to a name change. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Redskins owner Dan Snyder declared the team wouldn’t change its name, yet, here we are.
It’s also worth noting that the Chop was recently suspended at the most critical juncture in the Braves’s season. Before Game 5 of the 2019 National League Division Series between the Braves and their postseason arch-nemesis St. Louis Cardinals, the team announced the Chop would not be performed during the game, citing complaints by Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation. The Braves then allowed 10 runs in the first inning en route to a 13-1 St. Louis victory and ending Atlanta’s otherwise remarkable season in abject humiliation.
The point isn’t to say the Braves lost because its fans weren’t allowed to support their club the way they know and love. The point is that it took only one person — an opposing team’s player no less — to force the Braves into caving.
On one hand, it’s a moment of decency reflecting positively upon Atlanta. On the other, the ease with which it did so should be perceived as a warning sign. If a single opposing player was all it took to suspend the Chop, why should anyone believe the Braves wouldn’t change their name if enough outside pressure is applied?
Most importantly, obsessing over the Chop doesn’t address the core matter: the overall use of American Indians as team symbols. There’s just no way to get rid of the Chop without eventually addressing the “Braves” as a franchise name, a point alluded to by Jeff Schultz in The Athletic, who argued the Braves organization “backed itself into a corner” after the concession to Helsley.
There exists an air of inevitability that the winds of change, like any force of nature, can’t be overcome. For the Redskins, the decision to drop the name was precipitated by a potential loss of major sponsors like Amazon and FedEx. Such losses would’ve been financially devastating for the franchise and likely forced the hand of the team’s owners, a sign of just how powerful the unholy alliance of woke capitalism has become. If threatening franchises with major financial loss becomes a tried-and-true means of affecting change, why wouldn’t the same attempt be made with all the other teams that don’t conform to the demands of the new sociopolitical regime?
Sadly, it is undeniably clear is these decisions are largely outside the hands of those most invested in the club: the fans. Individually, fans can’t contribute anything near the amount of money a corporate sponsor ever could. But, collectively, fans make or break a franchise. Crucially, fans have invested their emotions, which no corporate sponsors can ever replicate.
As an Atlanta Braves fan since childhood, many of my most cherished memories involve the club. The team experienced an unprecedented run of success between 1991 and 2005, including 14 consecutive division titles, five National League titles, and a World Series victory. After a brief respite, since 2010, the Braves have made the postseason five times, three of them as division winners. While it may be offensive to some, words fail to describe the awe-inspiring display of thousands of red tomahawks or the sound of the Chop’s associated chant resonating in the stadium.
Those favoring name changes often argue, “It’s just a sports team, a name change won’t hurt you, get over it.” They’re probably right. So why change it at all? Because, cognitive dissonance aside, when you’re dealing with cultural cornerstones — like sports teams — identities matter.
While some American Indians feel it diminishes and misrepresents their culture, others view the imagery as a badge of honor. Indeed, it is frequently overlooked that we often name sports teams after things we like, that evoke wonder, that are formidable or impressive. Indeed, in the largest poll ever conducted on the Washington Redskins controversy, 90 percent of American Indians stated they did not believe the name to be racist.
Such is the power of a name, for it is often a name that forges an identity and, if contemporary debates have proven anything, few things are more important than identity. “It won’t hurt you” isn’t much of an argument. What it is, however, is a shameful attempt to stymie debate.
Yet an identity so divisive and fraught will always be in the crosshairs. If a name change is inevitable, Atlanta may at least have the luxury of potentially, and simply, removing one letter from its name to become the “Atlanta Brave.” It would be a unifying identity that would recognize people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Of course, there’ll be many groups with agendas who’ll seek to rename the franchise, if for no other reason than to claim victory in another culture war battle.
But this is where the fans can make their voices heard and bring balance to the dispute. Something as important as identity should be determined by those who invest their money and emotions into the venture, not by aggrieved non-fans who will inevitably withdraw interest once the change has been implemented. It most certainly shouldn’t be determined by multinational corporations driven by little else than their bottom line and a desire to be on the “right side” of history.
One day, not too long from now, the name “Atlanta Braves” may be no more. Concerned, invested fans should prepare to defend the name, or propose a new one, as vigorously as the leftist scolds advocating for change. Until then, Braves Country, Chop on.