Sports

Are These the Final Days of the Most Offensive Tradition in Baseball?

This World Series ought to bring overdue death to Atlanta’s shameful chant.

Fans in the stands hold out foam tomahawks or their right arms with hands in a "chop" position.
Fans perform the tomahawk chop chant during Game Five of the National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 9, 2019, in Atlanta. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

There are few things in life cringier than an Atlanta Braves home playoff game. Few things will make you wince more than watching a stadium of mostly white fans reach for a team-issued foam tomahawk, rhythmically chop it in mid-air as if they’re scalping someone, and moan a fake, Native American war cry in unison—all at the encouragement of the Braves’ stadium operators, who routinely dim the lights at key moments to coax the fans to perform it with their cellphone lights as well.

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The “tomahawk chop” is a plague. It’s impossible to watch it without it feeling like you’ve accidentally stepped through a wormhole and are witnessing a routine so racist and obnoxious that it couldn’t possibly still exist in 2021. Its presence is so odious that if you’re like me, you were dreading seeing the Braves advance to the World Series if for no other reason than that you knew the tomahawk chop would be featured during the sport’s most prestigious event. Alas, here we are. The chop, an embarrassing artifact of a different era, is about to go national.

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But ironically, at this point, putting the chop onto baseball’s biggest stage may well be its death knell.

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Though the chop has been defended as a “time-honored tradition,” the gesture has not been a traditional fixture of Braves fandom for as long as one might think. The franchise adopted its nickname in Boston in 1912, but its fans did not use the chop for the entire 40-year span it played in that city. Nor did Braves fans do the chop for the 12 years the team spent in Milwaukee, or for the first 25 years of its time in Atlanta. It wasn’t until 1991 that Braves organist Carolyn King began playing the tomahawk chop melody that had become a mainstay at Florida State football games that Braves fans embraced and quickly made it their own.

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Native American groups have protested the practice and called for it to be banned from the moment the team started featuring it. “It’s dehumanizing, derogatory and very unethical,” Aaron Two Elk, a member of the American Indian Movement, said during the Braves’ postseason run in 1991. “It extends a portrayal of Native American people as being warlike, aggressive, having a savage approach.” Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, also put out a statement at the time saying, “I’m still pulling for the Atlanta Braves to win the World Series, but I think it would be good for the country if professional sports teams and fans would honor requests by Native Americans to find less offensive team names and rituals.” None of this stopped the team from regurgitating the routine ad nauseam; it soon began selling foam tomahawks at each of their home games, encouraging fans to brandish them whenever they’d like.

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One of the only times there’s been a reduction on the routine was during the 2019 National League Division Series, when opposing St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley—a member of Cherokee Nation—publicly described the tomahawk chop as “disrespectful,” saying, “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.” The Braves limited the number of times it was played at the end of that series, and later announced they were considering if it should continue or not, but as of 2021, the chop is still a regular feature at Truist Park.

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The chop has survived in the same way other racist caricatures have survived, which is by avoiding being deemed so controversial that it becomes necessary, in the eyes of its corporate overlords, for it to be squashed. It has, thus far, not caused sponsors to pull their funding of the team, inspired widespread fan or broadcast boycotts, or brought on league sanctions. At minimum, no reaction has been sufficient enough to compel the team to change course. The chop has always been a ridiculous and offensive practice and should have been retired eons ago out of basic decency. But Major League Baseball has tolerated its existence anyway, if not because its leaders themselves endorse it then because the league doesn’t seem to think the controversy has risen to something that must be dealt with. The Braves, for all their success in the 1990s, haven’t been in front of the national stage that often since then, and even when they have advanced in the postseason, the knock on them is that they tend to fade away rather quickly. They rarely stick around in the playoffs long enough for the tomahawk chop to linger and sustain national attention, and the powers that be at MLB have more or less left it alone. Perhaps the league has reasoned that whatever controversy the chop stirs up never persists for long enough or loudly enough for it to actually reflect badly on the sport overall.

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But all of that is different now. The Braves have made the World Series for the first time since 1999, and suddenly the tomahawk chop is going to be a signature feature of it. Suddenly, when their contest with the Houston Astros moves to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday, 12 million people are going to be watching the tomahawk chop at a time when the sport is supposed to be becoming more tolerant and culturally respectful. With the team in the Series, national advertisers will be forced to consider the optics of being associated with a product whose fans are mimicking Native American stereotypes. There are going to be more write-ups like this one about it in major news outlets and discussions of it on TV. Far from being an overlooked aspect of a baseball season, the tomahawk chop will become one of the single biggest discussion points of it at a time when the most eyeballs are looking at the sport all year. The overwhelming majority of the conversation will be about how it offends people, and much of it will reasonably remark on how preposterous it is that the chop still exists. It will reach the point that Rob Manfred will have to comment on it repeatedly, in the midst of what should be the pinnacle of the baseball season. Once that happens, once it finally becomes a liability to Major League Baseball, the likelier it’ll be that the practical outcome will become the chop going away forever.

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We saw this recently with the Cleveland Indians, who will change their name to the Cleveland Guardians next season. The Indians nickname and their despicable mascot Chief Wahoo survived for decades in part because of the relative forgettability of the franchise. The team has not won the World Series since 1948, and before 1995, it went 41 years without even making the postseason. But when Cleveland made it to the big one in the 21st Century—and not just any World Series, but the enormously followed 2016 edition that saw the Chicago Cubs win their first championship in 108 years—it was the beginning of the end for both “Indians” and Wahoo.

That another historic MLB team has so recently chosen to move away from their controversial branding makes it all the more imperative that the tomahawk chop be done away with. Now that there’s a modern precedent to what the sport considers offensive to Native Americans, Rob Manfred will either have to go the rest of his tenure explaining why the chop doesn’t match up on the offensiveness scale with “Indians” or Chief Wahoo, all while insisting that Cleveland’s nickname had to be changed. Either that, or he will concede that it’s something that needs to be looked into and then privately push for the Braves to abandon it. Manfred is hardly a progressive visionary, and on Tuesday, he proved that by saying that he is “wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. For me, that’s the end of the story.” However, Major League Baseball was similarly supportive of the Indians and Wahoo, right up until it reached the point that it became an inconvenience. The chop is finally arriving at that point, and as stubborn and incompetent as Manfred might be, don’t be surprised to see him quickly evolve on this issue out of necessity.

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And it’s not just Cleveland or baseball that will influence how the league responds to the increased scrutiny the World Series will bring to Atlanta. It’s the larger movement in general wherein sports teams are moving away from featuring Native American imagery—a movement that saw the Washington Football Team ditch its racist nickname and the Kansas City Chiefs ban headdresses at their stadium last year.

Inclined as the league might ordinarily be to keep Braves fans happy, against this backdrop, it has already demonstrated that it’ll upset them if need be when it yanked the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over their state’s restrictive voting bill. Baseball will do what it has to to make sure nothing jeopardizes its ability to market young, diverse stars like Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr., whose growing popularity it sees as crucial to the league’s future. The chop might not be an impediment to that yet, but it looms as a symbol of what MLB is trying to move beyond: the sense that it is a predominantly white, conservative sport unwelcoming to new, younger, more diverse fans. In this effort, even in just pure self-interest, Major League Baseball would be wise to deem the chop as something that hurts the sport more nationally than it’s helping it locally.

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It’s also worth considering that the tomahawk chop is not the only aspect of the Braves that will be under intense scrutiny now. Like the Indians and Washington Football Team before them, the fact that Atlanta is called the “Braves” is something that will likely begin to be questioned more than ever now that they’ve made it to the World Series. As recently as 2020, the Braves released a statement saying that changing their nickname was “not under consideration or deemed necessary,” but that doesn’t mean much considering the similar defiant statements the Indians and Washington Football Team put out before their own respective name changes. Whatever viability Atlanta’s nickname has at continuing almost certainly rests on its ability to be divorced from Native American iconography. It’s already dubious that “Braves” can exist as a generic nickname the same way that “Warriors” has in the NBA or “Chiefs” one day might in the NFL, but there’s an even slimmer chance of it surviving so long as it’s associated with foam tomahawks, a tomahawk logo, the tomahawk chop, a “Chop House” concession stand in the stadium, and a team social media hashtag of #ChopOn.

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Any reasonable observer should realize why all that’s gotta go, and with the nickname under an enhanced spotlight, it makes all the sense in the world that the team will sacrifice the chop and all things tomahawk, at minimum, as a way to appease critics who think the name should disappear too. “Braves” might be problematic and hard enough to sell as inoffensive on its own, but it is indefensible when it’s a package deal with a sea of almost entirely non–Native American people pretending to let out Native American war cries at every home game.

What this means is that there’s a silver lining to the racist, nauseating cloud that hangs over this surprisingly good baseball team. As annoying as it will be to see the tomahawk chop at the World Series, there’s a solid chance that its prominence will actually kill the act once for all. Like Chief Wahoo before it, the tomahawk chop wasn’t made to hold up to exposure. Once you pull it away from the local level, where many people have a nostalgic connection to it, and put it out into the open, where people from across the country can appraise it for what it is, it’s hard to see it coming away unscathed—not anymore, not when we’re not even two years removed from Cleveland’s baseball team and Washington’s football team getting similarly sanitized. No setting is a befitting one for the tomahawk chop, but the World Series is the perfect one for making sure Major League Baseball finally, mercifully does something about it. Not because the league wants to, but because, at long last, it’ll finally have to.

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