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Atlanta angst

Biden administration uses White House visit to pressure Braves to change their name


President Joe Biden receives a jersey from Atlanta Braves officials. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

Atlanta angst

Traditionally, when a championship sports team visits the White House, it’s a feel-good public relations event. Players, coaches, and team executives listen to the president hail their success, take turns shaking his hand while smiling for the cameras, and chow down on a fancy, buffet-style spread.

That wasn’t the case for the Atlanta Braves earlier this week. President Joe Biden’s administration used the 2021 World Series champions’ visit as an opportunity to pressure the team to drop its Native American–themed nickname and its controversial, in-stadium “tomahawk chop,” which are a nod to the Cherokee Nation that once called Atlanta home.

As the cameras rolled during the Braves’ visit, Biden sang the Braves’ praises, calling them “the upset kings of October” for knocking off the Los Angeles Dodgers—winners of 106 regular-season games to the Braves’ 88—to win the 2021 National League pennant, then stunning the perennial American League powerhouse Houston Astros in six games in the World Series. The Braves, meanwhile, presented Biden with a team jersey bearing his last name and the number 46 because he is the 46th U.S. president.

After the Braves’ visit was over, a correspondent at a news conference asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about the team’s name and the tomahawk chop. During games at Truist Park in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, Ga., Braves fans cheer on their team by moving their hands back and forth in a karate-style chopping motion, chanting along to the sound of drums playing over the stadium’s loudspeakers.

The chop mimics the swing of a tomahawk, a hatchet-like weapon often used by North American indigenous tribes. A tomahawk sometimes underlines “Braves” or “Atlanta” on team jerseys and has occasionally been part of the “A” logo on the team’s caps. Some Native American groups and their supporters say the chop perpetuates negative stereotypes about Native Americans—specifically, that they were warmongers intent on removing white invaders’ scalps.

“We believe it’s important to have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre said. “Native American and indigenous voices, they should be at the center of this conversation.

“That is something the president believes. That is something this administration believes. And he has consistently emphasized that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. You hear that often from this president. The same is true here. And we should listen to Native American and indigenous people who are most impacted by this.”

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has defended the Braves’ name, as well as the chop.

“The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves’ program, including the chop,” Manfred told reporters at last year’s World Series. “For me, that’s kind of the end of the story.”

The Braves aren’t the only team that uses the chop at games. Fans at Florida State University have been doing the gesture in support of their Seminoles since the mid-1980s, several years before it became a mainstay at Braves games during Atlanta’s 1991 World Series run. (The Seminoles use their name with permission from the Seminole tribe, whose members are full participants in FSU activities, according to communityliteracy.org.) The Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League do a version of the tomahawk chop before their games, as well.

Still, since 2020, two professional sports franchises have bowed to public pressure to abandon all vestiges of association with Native American culture. Cleveland’s MLB franchise, once known as the Indians, became the Guardians following the 2021 season—two years after they discarded Chief Wahoo, the cartoonish, red-faced character with a Cheshire-cat grin whose face once adorned the team’s caps. The NFL team in Washington, D.C., formerly called the Redskins, rebranded as the Commanders this year after spending the past two seasons as the Washington Football Team.

And while the Chiefs still maintain some traditions with Native American roots, such as the Blessing of the Four Directions and the Blessing of the Drum, the team has banned fans from wearing headdresses and war paint at games.

But back to the Braves: The Republican Party shared Jean-Pierre’s comments about the team’s name and traditions on Twitter “in evident hopes of arousing sentiment against Democrats in Georgia, which is hosting crucial races for governor and the U.S. Senate this year,” MSN.com reported.

Last year, the MLB cost the city of Atlanta, whose population is overwhelmingly black, millions of dollars by moving the All-Star Game to Colorado after Georgia enacted a Republican-backed voting law. Throughout the South, fans at college football games and NASCAR races expressed their dislike of Biden in obscene terms last year—and while the chants that gave rise to the euphemistic phrase “Let’s go Brandon!” haven’t returned this season, Jean-Pierre’s comments about the Braves likely won’t endear Biden to many Southerners.


Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD Magazine who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.

@RayHacke43

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