On Wednesday, the Mets' crack PR team gifted to the world one of their patented how-not-to's. I am not referring to Matt Harvey's nude photo shoot that (according to a few stuffy scribes) was somehow responsible for two not-stellar starts in a row. No, another, more unsettling controversy bubbled up that day.
The Mets, like many teams, host numerous ethnic pride days/nights throughout the season. This year, they planned on adding to the mix a Native American Heritage Day, which would have involved pregame folk dancing and singing, as is par for the course with these sorts of events. Then, the Mets realized that they scheduled this particular event for a date when they'd be hosting the Atlanta Braves (July 25).
That added up to some unfortunate timing, slotting this heritage day to coincide with the visit of one of the many sports teams who still use a nickname and iconography many Native Americans would find insensitive at best. So the Mets quickly made amends to show they meant no disrespect or harm.
The problem was, the Mets decided the injured party was not the American Indian Community House, the organization with whom they partnered to plan this event, but the Atlanta Braves. According to Scott Cacciola of the Times:
...concerned that such activities might be interpreted by the Braves organization as a form of protest over its nickname, the Mets drastically reduced the day’s activities: no singing, no dancing. And now there won’t be any American Indians, either.
On Monday, the A.I.C.H. pulled out of the event, citing frustration with the Mets for thwarting months of planning. The team has removed the event from its online schedule of activities.
According to the article, the A.I.C.H. had no plans to do anything remotely protest-y at the event. They simply wanted to perform Native American songs and dances. An unnamed Mets official insisted the Braves themselves had nothing to do with this move. I believe this is true, because the whole affair has Classic Mets stamped all over it.
Under Fred Wilpon's sole ownership, the Mets have been marked by an almost pathological desire to be seen as The Nice Guys in the eyes of the rest of the league, often to their own detriment. Witness their steadfast adherence to draft slot payment recommendations, seemingly for no other reason than Bud Selig really wanted them to, while other teams with deep pockets ignored these voluntary guidelines. Witness them failing to challenge Joe Torre when he ruled they could not wear first responder hats on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Witness the Mets falling over themselves to pay tribute players from other teams, including players who have hurt them many times over their careers (Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones), while giving short shrift to players who actually wore a Mets uniform (Keith Hernandez, Mike Piazza, the entire 1973 pennant-winning team).
Why Wilpon and co. do this is a question best left to psychiatrists. Whatever the root cause, the canceling of Native American Heritage Day fits into their Nice Guy MO. But this case is even more weird upsetting that the Mets' usual "please don't be mad at us, other teams" moves.
Why? The Mets panicked because they feared the presence of actual Native Americans at Citi Field would offend the sensibilities of a team that was given a Native American-adjacent name 100 years ago by casually racist sportswriters.
There is an impressive amount of logical jiujitsu behind the idea that a Native American Heritage Night could somehow insult and embarrass the Braves (assuming their feelings should be of any concern to the Mets in the first place). In the 21st century, teams justify continued use of Native American team nicknames and imagery by insisting this is not racism or insensitivity, but rather an homage. If that is the case, genuine Native American performances shouldn't insult an organization that purports to pay tribute to them. If you contend that drunk dudes doing the Tomahawk Chop is honoring rather than insulting Native Americans, you can't then clutch your pearls when an authentic Native American chant takes place in your presence.
The "tribute" argument breaks down pretty quickly when you examine the roots of such team names, which were no more meant to be complimentary than are most "positive" stereotypes. In our slightly more enlightened age, teams cling to these names not for proactive racist reasons, but because of the pull of tradition and the weight of inertia. None of these teams intends to insult entire groups of people, but the effort required to change seems like too much of a hassle, provided you don't belong to the group that's being insulted.
In cases like this, it takes a jolt to make people want to change. The Mets might have been able to provide such a jolt by going forward with the event as planned. Much like they could have worn the first responder hats on 9/11 and dared Joe Torre to stop them, the Mets could have made a tacit comment on culturally insensitive team nicknames and waited for people to object.
Let's imagine for a moment that officials from the Braves raised a stink about Native American Heritage Day. Which side would look like the bigger jerk in that situation? Whose side would the public be on? And to put it in purely venal terms, would it have kept a single paying customer away from the ballpark, or a single pair of eyes away from their broadcasts? If anything, it would have generated good will for a team in desperate need of some.
For all we know, the Braves might have had no objections to this event whatsoever. It's unfair to assume Atlanta would have reacted negatively, largely because they were not given a chance to react at all. The Mets decided they'd rather not court controversy and tried to kill the issue as quietly as possible. It was a golden opportunity wasted.
The Mets stumbled backwards into a chance to confront a huge issue in sports head on, then decided at the last minute that they'd rather sit this one out. It amazes me that a team with a good chunk of its stadium's real estate dedicated to honoring Jackie Robinson—a man who spent his entire life confronting prejudice and ignorance head on—continues to value being seen as nice guys by their corporate partners more than it values taking a stand, about this or anything.
Another Brooklyn Dodger, Leo Durocher, had a line about where nice guys finish. Lo and behold, the Mets have wound up there again.