Sports | October 29, 2021 7:23 am

It’s Time to Stop Showing the Tomahawk Chop on TV

Broadcasters have made a habit of cutting away from streakers. Why, then, do we keep the camera on a blatantly racist chant?

Tomahawk chop
If the Braves won't stop fans from participating in an overtly racist display, TV networks can at the very least stop giving it airtime.
Carmen Mandato

Last summer, Major League Baseball moved the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in a response to the state of Georgia’s institutional racism — specifically, the recently enacted voting laws that were interpreted by many to be thinly veiled attempts to disenfranchise Black voters. Those responsible for orchestrating it, of course, claimed it had nothing to do with race, but MLB saw through it and ultimately decided that “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport” was to relocate the All-Star Game. And yet, on Friday night when the World Series returns to Atlanta, the league will allow a much more overt form of racism to be on full display.

Despite decades of objections from Native American groups and anyone else who (rightfully) happens to find a crowd of mostly white people stereotypically whooping and doing a faux war chant while making a gesture dubbed the “Tomahawk Chop” offensive, the Braves have refused to do anything to stop fans from doing it. When St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, spoke out about the chop during the 2019 NLDS, calling it “disrespectful” and pointing out how it depicts Native Americans as “caveman-type people,” the organization spit out some platitudes and promised to “continue to evaluate” the issue once the season was over. Naturally, two seasons later, the Chop is still fully integrated into the Truist Park experience; a giant neon tomahawk in center field “chops” along with the crowd, and fans can grab a bite at the Coors Light Chop House looking out on right field. In an age where the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins (now, thankfully, the Cleveland Guardians and the Washington Football Team) have finally succumbed to public pressure and rebranded, the Braves remain defiant.

And earlier this week, commissioner Rob Manfred indicated Major League Baseball has no intentions of putting a stop to the Chop. “The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community,” Manfred said. “The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves’ program, including the chop. And for me, that’s kind of the end of the story. In that market, taking into account the Native American community, it works.”

Of course, “these particular Native Americans say they’re cool with it, so therefore it’s fine” isn’t exactly a sound argument. The National Congress of American Indians responded to Manfred’s claims by saying “Nothing could be further than the truth” and releasing a lengthy statement about why appropriating their culture at sporting events is offensive. “If you just go out and get a group here or there and say you’re good, I don’t think that’s how Indian Country works,” Jason Salsman, a spokesman for Chief David Hill of the Muscogee Nation, told NBC News. “You need to speak to the whole of Indian Country and make sure that you get a grand consensus. I wouldn’t say that they have that.”

On the contrary, the “grand consensus” these days — among most people, not just Native Americans — is that the Chop is an ugly, embarrassing act that should have been retired decades ago. But if the Braves and Major League Baseball refuse to do anything to put a stop to it, at the very least, the TV networks broadcasting the games should stop giving it precious airtime. Presenting it as simply part of the game — as innocuous as the Wave or, say, a “Let’s go Mets” chant — is a tacit endorsement. Networks cut away from unsavory behavior during sporting events all the time; the general policy these days is to keep the camera off of streakers and fans who run onto the field because doing so would encourage more to follow suit and give the perpetrators the attention they’re seeking. Why, then, don’t they extend the same policy to fans being cartoonishly racist?

Logistically speaking, it’d be very easy for producers to avoid showing the Chop onscreen. It’s typically preceded by a pounding drum beat blaring throughout the park — gotta make sure your coordinated racism stays in sync, after all — which should provide sufficient warning. It’s not difficult to simply cut back to the field of play and refocus viewers’ attention on the game. We grew accustomed to not seeing any crowd shots whatsoever last season, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions. Would we really be missing that much by not giving airtime to a people doing a stereotypical “war chant” that essentially amounts to verbal redface?

Of course, the Braves aren’t the only team to do a version of the Tomahawk Chop. It originated at Florida State University Seminoles games, and it’s also a popular pregame tradition of the Kansas City Chiefs (though in 2020, Chiefs cheerleaders were required to modify the “chop” motion they do from an open palm to a closed fist). It’s frankly insane that the practice is still so widespread in the year 2021. Teams and television networks that claim to be all about “family values” and fun at the ol’ ballpark for all ages seemingly don’t have any qualms about showing a bunch of young kids that it’s acceptable to openly mock an entire race of people — many of whom have tried to explain why it’s hurtful and repeatedly asked us to stop. We don’t show fans flipping off opposing players or hurling expletives at them from the stands on TV broadcasts, but is a literal middle finger aimed at one person really more objectionable than a metaphorical one directed at an entire culture? If they were yelling the n-word or doing a Nazi salute instead of chopping, networks would cut away. Should this be any different?

Money talks, and the Braves and Major League Baseball remain terrified to put a stop to the Chop because they don’t want to alienate the fans and risk hurting their revenue streams. It’s why those same organizations try so hard to remain apolitical. But this has nothing to do with politics; this is simply a matter of racism vs. anti-racism, and those who don’t align firmly with the latter are — whether they intend to or not — implying that bigotry is palatable. To air the Chop on TV with no added context or commentary condemning it from the announcers sends the message that it’s normal, accepted behavior. It’s time someone takes a stand against it; waiting for the team to do the right thing is useless, and if they won’t act, at the bare minimum, networks should stop giving a platform to such an ugly and outdated display of hate.