Now that the MLB’s Cleveland Indians have joined the NFL franchise formerly known as the Washington Redskins in dropping a racist team name that caricatures Native Americans, the pressure to join them has naturally shifted to the three other professional sports franchises that use similar monikers: the MLB’s Atlanta Braves, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.
For now, at least, the three holdouts have all pledged to keep their names, much as the owners of Cleveland’s baseball club and Washington’s football team had for years. And their defenders, including President Donald Trump, are clinging to the same old arguments: that the names honor the people they depict, that there is too much history behind these arbitrarily chosen appellations to simply adopt new ones, and that any effort to change them is the latest incidence of cancel culture run amok.
“We adamantly oppose any effort to rename the Atlanta Braves,” Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both Republicans who are facing tough special election battles next month, wrote in a joint statement released Monday evening, before invoking the same trite defenses Washington, Cleveland and other franchises leaned on until they couldn’t anymore.
“Not only are the Braves a Georgia institution ... They’re an American institution,” the senators wrote. “The Braves’ name honors our nation’s Native American heritage, which should not be erased ― and under no circumstances should one of the most celebrated teams in sports cave to the demands of the cancel culture and the radical left.”
Loeffler and Perdue are far from honest participants in this debate, such that there is or should be one. Still, the statement lays bare the emptiness of the claims on which the continued use of these mascots and team names rests, and gives away the ending to this particular story.
The team known as the Atlanta Braves adopted the name in 1912, while it still played in Boston. The Boston Braves, in a coincidental twist, were at least part of the inspiration for the name the Washington Football Team abandoned six months ago.
The franchise kept the moniker through a move to Milwaukee in 1953 and relocation to Atlanta 13 years later, but “the Braves” did not become “an American institution,” as Loeffler and Perdue assert they are, until the 1990s, when then-owner Ted Turner put the team’s games on his TBS Superstation, allowing national audiences to watch Atlanta baseball each night. They became popular across the South, and then across the country, thanks to geography, accessibility, and their “Team of the ’90s” success ― the name was merely an attachment loved because the team was adored first.
That’s not to say no one cared. While it’s convenient for defenders of these names to pretend the controversy around them is a new product of “cancel culture,” Atlanta’s success in the ’90s coincided with a resurgence of activism against Native mascots. Protests and federal lawsuits against Washington’s football team soaked up most of the attention, but Atlanta and Cleveland also faced nightly demonstrations when they met in the 1995 World Series. (“We’re the only race of people that has sports mascots and sports teams named after them,” Ken Rhyne, a co-director of the American Indian Movement, told Reuters at the time. “If it was the Atlanta Negros, the Atlanta Hispanics, any situation like that, the stadium would be burned down overnight.”)
Since then, Cleveland’s baseball club and the Washington Football Team have dominated the discussion about such mascots, largely because Washington’s name and Cleveland’s “Chief Wahoo” logo were self-evidently racist. The former was a “dictionary-defined racial slur,” as activists called it. The latter is a caricature no team would get away with adopting today, especially if it depicted any other racial or ethnic group, a point the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest tribal organization and a longtime opponent of such names, has made in its campaigns against Chief Wahoo.
But the same basic arguments apply to names like “Braves,” “Blackhawks” and “Chiefs.” Native American activists, tribal organizations, students, academic studies, and leading psychological and sociological associations have for decades presented evidence that the use of tribal mascots and imagery has harmful effects on the people they caricature, even when they aren’t based on outright slurs or cartoonish depictions.
Cleveland owner Paul Dolan acknowledged that when he ruled out renaming his baseball team “The Tribe” in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, and there is little need to re-litigate that argument in the cases of the other franchises. Atlanta, Kansas City and Chicago have already tacitly admitted as much themselves.
During the 2019 MLB playoffs, Atlanta said it would limit the playing of the prompt for its grotesque and racist “Tomahawk Chop” chant after St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized it. The change was a small and largely empty gesture, but it was nevertheless an acknowledgment that a problem existed.
This summer, as the debate kicked up again after Washington changed its name, Atlanta said it would take steps to limit Tomahawk-related imagery and signage at Truist Park, the team’s stadium. It also launched a study into whether the “Tomahawk Chop” was indeed everything Helsley (and a generation of Native American activists) had already said it was.
Chicago’s hockey team, meanwhile, said this summer that it would ban fans from wearing headdresses at its games, and that it would commit to investing in a Native American-owned cultural center in Illinois. The team, it said, wanted to do more to educate fans about Native American culture and achievements that “are not limited to history books and museums but thriving right now within our military, business, the arts and more.”
Kansas City’s football franchise also barred headdresses in its stadium, said it would prohibit fans from painting their faces in a manner meant to depict Native American culture, and said it would review its version of Atlanta’s chant, the “Arrowhead Chop.”
None of these teams deserve credit for the meager steps they have taken, and all three stopped short of the ultimate change: Kansas City said it would keep the “Chiefs” name; Atlanta’s corporate owners said the team would “always be known as the Atlanta Braves;” and Chicago’s ownership said in a statement that the team’s name was meant to symbolize “an important and historic person” ― a member of the Sac and Fox Nation ― and that the use of the name fell on the right side of “a fine line between respect and disrespect.”
This, though, is the process playing out as it always has. Cleveland’s baseball team and the Washington Football Team long argued (dubiously, most likely) that their names were originally chosen to honor specific Native Americans, and that as such they were signs of respect, rather than harmful caricatures. They conducted “studies” meant to discover what Native Americans had already told them. They posited that minimal financial contributions to tribal organizations and causes — or half-hearted measures to make their teams ever-so-slightly less offensive — would make up for their refusal to meet the simplest of demands.
And they both eventually changed their names, joining more than 1,000 colleges, universities, high schools and pro sports teams that did the same decades ago, and the increasing number that are doing so now.
It’s a shockingly easy conclusion to reach once the people in charge simply listen to what critics of these mascots and names have been saying all along, as Dolan, the Cleveland owner, admitted to the AP on Monday.
“It was a learning process for me and I think when fair-minded, open-minded people really look at it, think about it and maybe even spend some time studying it, I like to think they would come to the same conclusion: It’s a name that had its time, but this is not the time now, and certainly going forward, the name is no longer acceptable in our world,” he said.
Eventually, the owners of Atlanta’s baseball club, Chicago’s hockey team and Kansas City’s football franchise will make ― or will be forced to make ― the same decision. They might as well do it now.