Why is this so hard?
In the year 2021, why do some sports organizations still insist on using Indigenous American names, mascots, caricatures, rituals, etc., to promote their team?
And in the case of Atlanta’s Major League Baseball team, why do they continue to encourage fans to do the tomahawk chop by turning the lights out and blasting a drum beat for fans to chant to while doing the chop motion with the flashlights on their phones?
There are certainly bigger issues in the United States than the use of Indigenous nicknames and mascots by sports teams. In particular, the Indigenous are dealing with high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment.
But those are multi-faceted issues lacking simple solutions. Changing sports team names and mascots is relatively easy by comparison.
Yes, going against tradition will upset some fans. But it will also make it easier for other fans to cheer for their local team.
There are many negative ramifications from the continued use of Indigenous nicknames and mascots in sports. The American Sociological Association has long called for the end of all Indigenous team nicknames, logos and other symbols.
“Sociologists and scholars from allied social and behavioural science fields (e.g. anthropology and psychology) have conducted research on the topic of Native American sports nicknames and logos,” according to the association in a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. “The findings from these studies are clear: these nicknames and logos involve stereotypes that harm Native Americans.”
All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The use of Indigenous nicknames, logos, mascots and rituals like the tomahawk chop, no matter their intent or popularity, are inappropriate and insensitive. They mock and trivialize Indigenous religion and culture, and block genuine understanding of contemporary Indigenous people as fellow citizens.
The authors of a study published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology concluded that “American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.”
But this isn’t just a bunch of academics claiming harm for the Indigenous. Ryan Helsley, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and a member of the Cherokee Nation, said, “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 about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way. … There have been schools who in the past 20, 30 years have changed their mascots. I don’t see why professional teams are so far behind on that.”
Not all of them are. The Cleveland baseball team has changed its name from the Indians to the Guardians and has dropped their cartoonish mascot, Chief Wahoo. The National Football League’s Washington franchise has dropped its racist nickname.
But Atlanta’s baseball team continues on this demeaning path.
And what’s sad is that Manfred is okay with it, which is strange since he previously pushed Cleveland to change its Native American nickname and mascot.
“I think it’s important to understand that we have 30 markets in the country,” said Manfred before Game One of the World Series. “Not all are the same. The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community. … For me, that’s kind of the end of the story.”
It most definitely isn’t the end of the story. Eventually, society will progress to the point where it won’t make any ethical or financial sense for Atlanta to keep its nickname and tomahawk chop ritual. But why delay the inevitable?
Just do the right thing now. It’s truly not that hard.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.
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