Once upon a time, between 30 and 120 years ago, baseball was a regional game. You were born somewhere, you loved the team, you watched or listened to them play, and if you moved away, all you could do was read the box scores in the paper or hope they played the team in your area once in a while.
That time is behind us. Now, nothing is regional. If you grew up in Atlanta or Houston, you're no longer limited to looking up the box scores in the paper. Thanks to MLB and the glorious internet, you can watch your team from anywhere. What happens on any of the 30 MLB baseball fields every night is available to watch in far-flung places.
Including the Tomahawk Chop.
The chop, long derided as racist and offensive, continues to be chanted by Atlanta Braves fans at 81 home games a year, all of which can be seen or heard around the country (and the world) on a television, computer, phone or old-fashioned radio. But in the world of commissioner Rob Manfred, baseball is still a regional game, and that's why he thinks the chop is totally fine.
We have 30 markets around the country. They're not all the same. The Braves had done a phenomenal job with the Native American community, the Native American community in that region is fully supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. And you know, for me, that's kind of the end of the story.
I think each market is different. I think that, you know, Atlanta — way before this became an issue — had cultivated a relationship with the Native American community that I think was very helpful in terms of them making decisions on issues.
We don't market our game on a nationwide basis, you know, ours is an everyday game, you’ve got to sell tickets every single day to the fans in that market. And there are all sorts of differences among the clubs among the regions as to how the games are marketed.
Let's put aside Manfred's baffling comments about baseball not being marketed nationally and focus on his comments about the chop. According to Manfred, because the local Native American community supports the continued use of the chop, the Braves can keep doing it. Even that assertion is a bit murky, and certainly doesn't hold up on a broader scale. But the message is clear. If others feel it's racist and are offended by it, that's too bad because they don't live in Atlanta or have a relationship with the Braves.
However, racism is still racism regardless of where it takes place. Just because Manfred claims Atlanta is fine with the chop doesn't make it any less racist or inappropriate. One of baseball's 30 teams encourages its fans to perform a racist chant at home games, and that can't be explained away by "regionalism."
The chop needs to be eradicated, but changing fan behavior isn't that simple. The Braves could somehow decide to stop encouraging their fans to do the chop, but that doesn't mean the fans won't do it on their own. To get rid of the chop forever, MLB has to take cues from the most popular sport in the world: soccer.
How FIFA, UEFA punish racist and anti-gay chants
FIFA and UEFA have had to develop and refine rules over the past several years to deal with fans yelling racist or homophobic chants during soccer games. It's easy for both organizations to punish players for racist or homophobic actions, but much harder to punish fans.
There's really only one way to do it: Make the team suffer, both financially and on the field.
UEFA, the governing body for the sport in Europe, adopted a three-step process for referees to use when fans are yelling racist, anti-gay, or other derogatory and offensive chants.
Once a referee notices or is made aware of the behavior, they stop the game and have an announcement made over the stadium loudspeaker asking fans to immediately stop.
If the behavior doesn't stop after the game is restarted, the referee can stop the game for a longer period of time (5-10 minutes) and order both teams to leave the pitch. Another announcement is made.
If the behavior still doesn't stop after the second restart, and all reasonable measures have been taken, the referees can decide to abandon the match for good.
The punishment goes beyond the on-field actions. FIFA and UEFA will fine the team an amount that depends on the severity of the incident. Beyond that, teams can be forced to play games behind closed doors, without fans. They can also be banned from tournaments and have points deducted from their season total, possibly affecting their position in the standings.
How MLB can eradicate the chop for good
The rules from FIFA and UEFA obviously can't be implemented in MLB without some changes. There are no points in baseball (only wins and losses). But MLB can translate the spirit of those rules into concrete punishments.
Since the goal is to stop this fan behavior in its tracks, the first line of defense has to be umpires. They should have the same power as UEFA referees, with a similar three-step process to stop the chants when they happen.
Once the umpires notice the chant, the game is stopped and an announcement made over the stadium loudspeaker.
If the chant doesn't stop after the game is restarted, the umpire stops the game for 5-10 minutes and order both teams to their clubhouses (possibly affecting the status of the pitchers) as another announcement is made.
If the chant still doesn't stop after the second restart, the umpires can decide that the game should be stopped permanently, causing the home team to automatically forfeit.
That's not all, of course. While fines are the first step of FIFA's postgame discipline, it's pretty clear around the world of sports that fining teams is almost entirely useless. Franchises bring in revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so fining a team tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars has no measurable impact.
So instead of fines, it's time to skip directly to the punishments that will actually hurt. While a warning should be issued for the first incident, the next incident should require the team to play a future home game behind closed doors, without fans. All tickets sold must be refunded with no exceptions. That costs the owners much more than a simple fine, and the team on the field will have to play in an eerie, silent stadium.
There needs to be an escalation process for repeated offenses, when it's clear that fan-free games aren't stopping fans from continuing their behavior. The obvious punishment is the forfeiture of games. The offending team (like the Braves) would be given an automatic loss (and their opponent an automatic win) the next time they face a team in their own division.
If fans know that their actions could actually cost their team a game in their division, they'd probably think twice about letting the chop come out of their mouths. Is that really worth costing their team a chance to make the playoffs?
Right now, all of this is about stopping the chop. But these rules would hold MLB in good stead for years to come. Passionate people in large groups can be joyful, but when things go bad, what you have is 40,000 people yelling something offensive and potentially hurtful in front of live TV cameras.
And without MLB taking action, fans will continue to yell something offensive and actually hurtful 81 games a year, multiple times a night, whenever the Braves succeed on the field. Right now, it's happening on baseball's biggest stage, the World Series. It's available for everyone to see, and it's sending the message to everyone who watches (which is a shrinking group already) that not only is MLB is completely fine with this manifestation of racism hiding behind fan tradition, but actively supportive of it.
No matter what Manfred says, this goes way beyond Atlanta. And no matter where it takes place, it's still racism.