Welcome to Atlanta, where the World Series collides with culture wars

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ATLANTA – In more conventional times, the World Series symbolizes innocuous Americana perhaps better than any event. And when it returns to Atlanta this weekend for the first time since 1999, still-shiny Truist Park will feature all the trappings.

The World Series logo clings tightly to rain-dampened first and third base lines, the red-white-and-blue bunting hanging regally from three levels. In the stadium’s catacombs, a display of black and red balloons outside a ballpark suite are adorned with a string of white balloons, capturing the zeitgeist with a tribute to outfielder Joc Pederson’s pearl necklace.

Yet all the pomp – the first pitch, the anthem, the fireworks – can’t erase the fact that this suburban diamond is doubling as a battlefield in the culture wars.

Friday night, when the Braves welcome the Houston Astros for Game 3, it will unfold amid a politically inflamed landscape that, try as they might, the Braves, the citizens of Georgia and Major League Baseball cannot avoid.

In a sense, it is a revenge game for the home team, which earned its way to a jewel event after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred pulled July’s All-Star Game from Atlanta following the state’s passage of a set of voting laws largely viewed as disproportionately restrictive to voters of color. And an uninvited guest will be watching Saturday’s Game 4 from a suite – former President Donald Trump, who begged the state of Georgia for 11,000 more votes after he lost there on the way to a national-election defeat last year, inflaming his base to believe a fairly-run election was illegitimate.

And while the Braves’ imagery and its hostile "tomahawk chop" long elicited disgust from opposing fans and indigenous peoples, the team, increasingly, finds itself on an island: The past year has seen Cleveland’s baseball team and the Washington Football Team abandon their Native American nicknames.

Atlanta fans do the tomahawk chop during a game in April.
Atlanta fans do the tomahawk chop during a game in April.

With the Braves back in the national spotlight, Manfred opted to punt before World Series Game 1 when asked if he’d follow up his All-Star Game relocation with added pressure on the Braves to change their name or further discourage fans using the chop, siding with the home team.

That may not spare Manfred from boos for moving July’s All-Star Game. As for Trump, he lost Cobb County by 14 points to President Joe Biden, but any public acknowledgement will likely be more warmly received here than in Washington, where he was lustily booed during the 2019 World Series.

Play ball? Yes, the Braves and Astros will meet in Games 3, 4 and 5. Yet the wounds from a contested and disputed 2018 governor’s race, the 2020 election and the ’21 All-Star Game’s removal and subsequent backlash still sting.

“It’s pretty personal,” says Adrienne Jones, assistant professor of political science and the director of the pre-law program at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, of SB 202, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in March less than five months after the 2020 election.

“It’s clear the effort was in response to the fact the GOP did not get the results in the state it wanted. In addition to telling lies about the electoral outcome, which continues today, the rules were changed in what appeared to be educated methods designed to ensure fewer minorities would be able to get to the polls.”

Manfred acted swiftly, consulting with the MLB Players’ Association, the Black-led Players’ Alliance and corporate sponsors before pulling the All-Star Game on April 2. The Braves were angry, releasing a statement indicating they were “deeply disappointed" by MLB's decision and that this was "neither our decision nor our recommendation and we are saddened that fans will not be able to see this event in our city."

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Kemp pounced on the political football, dropping references to "cancel culture" and "woke political activists," and targeting political opponents with false claims.

“This attack on our state is the direct result of repeated lies from Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams about a bill that expands access to the ballot box and ensures the integrity of our elections.”

Atlanta had lost its first All-Star Game since 2000, and while the regional economic impact of such events can often be overstated, it did cost area workers. Abrams, who lost a highly contested gubernatorial election in 2018, did not advocate for the game’s removal.

Jones, the Morehouse professor, believes moving the game was the appropriate call.

“It’s important that institutions make the point,” she said. “Because they do have the power to impact the civic community and let elected officials know that their choices are problematic.”

Yet institutions do have their limits when it comes to taking a stand.

'Harder than it used to be'

As Manfred was peppered with questions over the Braves’ tomahawk chop returning to the game’s biggest spotlight, he mused that MLB “always tried to be apolitical. Obviously, there was a notable exception this year.

“It’s harder than it used to be.”

Indeed, Manfred’s maneuver put him at odds with one of the game’s more storied franchises. The relationship between club and league frayed, but, given Manfred’s endorsement of Atlanta’s nickname, seems to have mended.

“We have a great relationship with MLB, especially now, when we’re all focused on the World Series and the game of baseball,” Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk told USA TODAY Sports. “I tell you, we are so apolitical in every possible way right now. Just focus on baseball. And that’s not B.S. That is the real deal.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have made peace with the Braves but angered those who say the team name is racist when he said, 'The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community.'
Commissioner Rob Manfred may have made peace with the Braves but angered those who say the team name is racist when he said, 'The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community.'

“We were heavily disappointed that we lost the game. And I told the commissioner, we disagree. But the commissioner makes those decisions, and we saluted, and went on.”

Of course, it’s impossible for institutions, including sports leagues and franchises, to remain apolitical, when they rely on antitrust exemptions, public funds for stadiums and other governmental mechanisms. The Braves are no exception.

For example, John C. Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, parent company of the Braves, donated $525,600 to Republican candidates and political action committees during the 2019-20 election cycle, according to a USA TODAY Sports analysis of political donations from sports teams and executives.

Manfred aimed to tamp down concerns over the Braves’ nickname this week, but the controversy only gained steam after he told reporters that the Braves have “done a great job with the Native Americans. I think the Native American community is the most important group to decide whether it’s appropriate or not and they have been unwaveringly supportive of the Braves.”

Yet while the Braves have indeed developed a working relationship and endorsement from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Manfred acknowledged that “I don’t know how every Native American group around the country feels.”

A majority, according to one activist, are far less forgiving of the Braves’ name and imagery.

Crystal Echo Hawk, a citizen of Oklahoma’s Pawnee Nation and the founder and executive director of IllumiNative, viewed Manfred’s comments as a setback after the group helped in the effort to change Cleveland and Washington’s nicknames.

She’s encouraged by Nielsen data indicating younger Americans do not approve of Native peoples being used as mascots, and says such imagery has a significantly negative psychological impact on Native juveniles.

“Playing ‘Indian’ is a national pastime in this country,” says Echo Hawk. “People are finally trying to see that blackface and those portrayals are wrong. This is the last vestige that’s OK.

“This is about this team and Major League Baseball condoning racism. Full stop.”

Echo Hawk says there are “swaths of Americans that aren’t even sure we exist anymore,” leaving only Hollywood stereotypes and other caricatures authored by non-Native people that seep through.

And the uninformed are often too eager to perpetuate it.

Monday night, on the eve of this World Series, Bacone College, a tribal institution in Muskogee, Oklahoma, played a men’s basketball game against Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. During the game, a group of students punctuated a standard “Airball!” chant by performing the tomahawk chop and, as one observer noted, “pretended to scalp each other.”

This learned behavior was particularly discouraging to Echo Hawk, who notes Native Americans younger than 30 are disproportionately affected by such caricatures. She cites copious research to quanitfy the harm and opposition. Plus, the National Congress of American Indians, which includes more than 300 tribes, has passed resolutions against native mascots.

“The writing is on the wall,” says Echo Hawk. “A majority of Native Americans are sick and tired of how we are represented and this paternalism that says, ‘We are honoring you by putting on red face,’ or throwing a couple of cool things to you and that’s OK.

“Pro teams (abandoning Native mascots) have shown how it’s done and thousands of schools across the country have shown how it’s done.”

'Went about its business'

The three World Series games in Atlanta should further amplify the chop discourse, what with some 40,000 fans at Truist performing it during pitching changes and at other key points, even turning on their cell phone cameras during pitching changes as the house lights are dimmed and they chant away.

While the organ element of the chop and the giveaway of foam tomahawks disappeared after Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley complained during the 2019 playoffs, the #ChopOn hashtag used by league and team-related social media accounts show the chant is far from diminished.

If that were the only issue at hand.

The MLB-Atlanta flap was only deepened by Kemp, who used his Twitter account to congratulate the Braves and lambaste the league after Atlanta clinched the NL pennant.

“While Stacey Abrams and the MLB stole the All-Star Game from hardworking Georgians,” Kemp tweeted on Oct. 23, “the Braves earned their trip to the World Series this season and are bringing it home to Georgia. Chop On, and Go @Braves!”

Abrams received 48.8% of the vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election, narrowly losing to Kemp’s 50.2%, and has since founded Fair Fight Action, a political action committee aimed at ensuring fair elections. She has not declared her candidacy for the 2022 governor’s race.

“As Braves fans across the country were celebrating, Brian Kemp swung and missed again with his bizarre deflection of blame for the harm to Georgians resulting from a bill that he signed,” Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Abrams, told USA TODAY Sports.

Just as the Braves’ playoff run has, somewhat startlingly, turned into a proxy war for potential elections in 2022 and ’24, the plight of workers hit in the pocketbook has turned into a political cudgel as well.

The World Series will help restore some of the potential wages lost with the All-Star Game’s relocation to Denver, though that event draws significantly more out-of-state visitors.

A sampling of Black service-industry workers in both downtown Atlanta and Cobb County, near Truist Park, show mixed feelings for lost revenue and taking a stand.

“We were looking forward to it so much,” said Henrio Antoine, who works on the bell desk at the downtown Marriott Marquis. “Even though the game was not (downtown), as (one of) the biggest hotels in Atlanta, it cost us so much money. We expected it to be full that week.

“Now, the World Series? So far we don’t know. We expect by the end of tomorrow we should be almost full. Baseball is big in this town and they haven’t had the World Series since 1999.”

Antoine estimates the game’s removal – and the two days surrounding it – cost him up to $300 per day. Yet the Braves’ 2018 relocation from Turner Field downtown to suburban Cobb County already muted business there.

“The center of gravity has shifted to Cobb County,” said a valet attendant at a hotel within walking distance of Turner Field, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Philips Arena. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on industry matters. “There used to be a lot of ambience and fans here chopping.

“Now, we only get a few.”

An assistant general manager of a hotel near the ballpark says that while the property immediately lost three nights at full capacity for the All-Star Game, it was a blip compared to weathering the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The only complaints I really heard were on the news,” she said. “Atlanta stood up and went about its business.”

Just one of the respondents complained that the boycott was not worth it, merely expressing a hope that balloting could be done online someday. Others are more strident that much more is at stake than a few hundred dollars.

“First of all everybody should have a right to vote,” says Antoine, a Haitian American who immigrated to Boston in 1986 and moved to Atlanta in 2008. “We should be leading the world by example and letting people vote whenever they want.

“It should be easy.”

Morehouse’s Jones views sports and entertainment as one of the last pressure points the public can apply, and that short-term sacrifice cannot cancel the long-lasting effects.

“Especially when elections are so inundated with corporate money, it’s already difficult for people to get their points across at the ballot box,” she said. “While I understand money was lost, this was the point.

“This is the leverage."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Series collides with politics as Astros, Braves meet in Atlanta