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Without Feathers: The Flap Over Native American Regalia at the Ballpark Reveals a Deeper Hypocrisy 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2014
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At your humble narrator's first baseball game, Dwayne Murphy made three scintillating outfield catches, each more breathtaking than the last. But, these 30 years later, the score — or any trappings of athletic competition — has been long forgotten. The indelible memory was the sight of Murphy's prodigious afro repeatedly erupting after his cap popped off, a joyous spectacle only missing a cartoony "boing."

Kids notice things at the ballpark that former kids do not. The unfamiliarity of hurling crap onto the floor. The malevolence of someone shouting to a player "tell your mother my 10 bucks is in the mail." The illogic of vendors in the heart of California caterwauling in Bronx accents.

We become inured to the oddness and ugliness around us. With the way the Giants are playing now, it's a downright necessity. And, last month, 25-year-old lifetime fan April Negrette was doing her best to smother yet another ugly loss with fistfuls of garlic fries.

Then her sister noticed the guy wearing the feathered headdress. Upside-down.

The details, at this point, grow somewhat difficult to parse. Negrette, the daughter of a Paiute-Shoshone mother and Mexican-American father, recalls weeping in front of the "hipster wearing a fake headdress." At some point the feathered headdress was handed to her by, in retrospect, someone who did not have the authority to hand over someone else's headdress. The owner of the headdress — who claimed Native American heritage in a tribe Negrette claims would not wear such a headdress — was displeased. Negrette did not wish to return it: "No man who earned his feathers would bring that to a baseball game."

The police were summoned; Negrette and friend Kimball Bighorse were hustled off.

It was Native American Heritage Night at the ballpark. This was a bad scene. And so, last week, after meeting with Negrette and Bighorse, the team announced it would add "culturally insensitive" garb to the compendium of ballpark misdeeds that'll get one iced from a game: obscene language, abusive behavior, telling the right-fielder his mother's 10 bucks are in the mail.

Negrette calls this a "first step." Constitutional experts agree — if the destination is a legal and ethical minefield.

In the Woody Allen film Bananas, the leader of a newly installed junta demands his subjects must now change their underwear every hour — and must wear it on the outside, "so we can check." ("He has gone mad with power!") At AT&T Park, if the Giants wished, they, too, could issue this dictum.

The privately financed stadium is not a public park, and not subject to constitutional protections. "If they wanted every fan to show proof they're wearing long underwear — that'd be fine," affirms UC Hastings law professor Peter Keane. "They could say no one could wear a blue hat in their stadium. It's their stadium."

There are limits to what a private business can demand within its private property. State and federal laws prevent discrimination due to race, sex, or sexual orientation. And, adds Golden Gate School of Law professor emeritus Myron Moskovitz, California's Unruh Civil Rights Act goes further, forbidding even private businesses of "being arbitrary in treating classes of people, races, and religions differently."

The term "culturally insensitive" is about as arbitrary as they come.

And, in a hypothetical situation resembling the one on Native American Heritage Night, a ballpark ethicist is in for a challenge. If a person who appears to be a Native American and a person who appears to be some other race are wearing identical Native American outfits, would it be considered "arbitrary" to single out solely the second individual as "culturally insensitive"?

Perhaps so, says Moskovitz. "That might be deemed arbitrary. They're both expressing something. There's a vagueness problem."

That vagueness would allow the Giants to potentially take action against fans wearing just about anything. But, in all likelihood, the people wearing the most offensive clothing of all will get a free pass.

Giants' spokeswoman Shana Daum admits that, "given what transpired on Native American Heritage Night," ballpark policy was due for a change. So, what would happen if a fan gallivanted into the stadium wearing a shirt or a cap depicting a caricature of a leering, Indian Sambo with fire engine-red skin?

Well, Daum says, that could be a problem. "If it was offensive to someone in the park, we'd have to take a look," she says.

Well, it is offensive. To a lot of people in the park. And it's also the Major League-licensed logo of the Cleveland Indians.

Kids notice things at the ballpark that former kids do not. We may be unaware of the strangeness of cheering on our team to beat another team named for some historically disenfranchised group.

Others are not.

"Psychologically, it has an effect on our community," says Negrette. "We see our culture as a commodity or something comedic. We see ourselves as something not to be taken seriously."

Asked to square the logic of targeting attendees wearing headdresses, but not fans decked out in league-sanctioned Chief Wahoo or tomahawk-emblazoned Atlanta Braves apparel, constitutional scholars Keane and Moskovitz could not.

"That doesn't make any sense, does it?" Moskovitz asks. "That tends to emphasize the arbitrariness of it." Adds Keane: "You cannot logically reconcile those two things." But, he stresses, "There's no requirement they be logical in the way they set the rules for the people who come into their stadium."

Everyone must wear their underwear on the outside. So they can check.

Could the Giants restrict fans from wearing the apparel of an opposing team? Keane and Moskovitz say yes.

Will they do this? All but certainly not.

But Negrette can hope. Boot those fans. Boot the players, too. Send a message. "Oh, that would rock. That would rock Major League Baseball."

Hope, per Emily Dickinson, is the "thing with feathers." And that's fitting. The Giants, right now, are a team without hope.

Or feathers.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

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