The Kansas City Chiefs are on the clock now. You’ll hear people say this.
The Washington Redskins are now the Washington Football Team, pending a new team nickname, and this week the Cleveland Indians announced they, too, will find a new name.
That moves the Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks to the top of the list, America’s last remaining major professional sports teams with names connected to Native American imagery.
The Chiefs are the most visible of the three, play in the biggest league and employ arguably the biggest star in all of sports.
So they’re on the clock. You’ll hear people say that, anyway.
Except they’re not going to change. Not anytime soon, anyway.
The Chiefs have prepared for this fight for seven years. Seven years! Culturally, the Chiefs’ marketing and business folks move slow and think long-term. This is an old-school franchise, in that way, and for seven years club president Mark Donovan and others among team leadership have seen this fight coming.
Nothing that’s happened since has been unexpected.
The Chiefs have insulated themselves. They’ve partnered with members of various tribes in Kansas City and the region.
But this should not read as a full defense of the Chiefs.
Their actions are more defensive than proactive. Their goal has always been to find a safe space between two sides of an argument that see no common ground. This type of controversy can be bad for business, and the Chiefs have always prioritized business.
They’ve approached this like people-pleasers, not bold leaders. That’s neither a criticism nor defense. We just need to be honest about what’s happening here.
The Chiefs talked, listened and made changes ranging from subtle (adding the war drum blessing before games) to shameless CYA (their cheerleaders do the tomahawk chop with a closed fist now, like they’re banging on a drum) to long overdue (fans are prohibited from wearing headdresses at Arrowhead Stadium).
But, notably, they’ve stacked the deck by partnering specifically with groups whose asks fall short of changing their arrowhead logo or the name of the team or stadium. Recently, their discussions have been opened to national groups with more progressive views, but their focus groups are not asking for anything the Chiefs can’t do while keeping the trains moving forward.
Self-serving or not, the time and energy they’ve spent has always put the Chiefs in a fundamentally different and more secure place than the football team in Washington or the baseball team in Cleveland.
The question of whether the Chiefs should change their name will never be answered satisfactorily.
One part of this that is often overlooked is that, as things stand right now, no business or institution in the country can match the Chiefs’ reach and motivation to educate the public about American Indian history and treat that history with respect.
If they become the Monarchs or Kings or shift their imagery to represent fire chiefs, then all their effort and motivation to address Native Americans evaporates. Without anything to fill that space. Is that the best thing for a group of people already underrepresented in classrooms and popular culture?
These are difficult questions, and the issues are complicated enough that any solution will be flawed.
Personally, I’ve always drawn a distinct line between the Redskins and Indians and the Chiefs or Braves or Blackhawks. I believe the Chiefs have done everything that should be expected of them, treating the issue with respect.
I am by nature hard to offend, and I see the Chiefs organization’s work in this space as significant. I also believe the opinion of a white dad and sportswriter on whether a team’s name is offensive to American Indians is comprehensively irrelevant.
The Chiefs organization controls the name, and its most valued constituency is the fans. It’s instructive to remember that some 25 years ago the team banned the tomahawk chop, received a flood of negative reaction from fans, and immediately flipped. The 1990s are a long time ago, but the organization’s base way of decision-making persists.
This is a self-survival thing for them, then. The Hunt family is among a handful of original owners in sports, and they prioritize tradition. Always have. You can see that in so many ways, from the Chiefs’ uniforms to the stadium to their marketing. They will protect tradition first, last and whenever possible.
The Chiefs have been consistent with this, and so have their fans. You can criticize the Chiefs’ business folks for a lot of things, but they do listen to fans. That’s why the headdresses were easier to get rid of than the chop.
There is no massive public campaign to save a random white person’s right to look like a fool, but there will be if the chop or team name are ever seriously threatened.
That’s what’s often missed when the team’s name becomes a topic.
Those who want the name changed don’t have to convince Donovan or chairman and CEO Clark Hunt. They have to convince thousands of Chiefs fans, the ones who buy gear and tickets and have shown themselves to have the power.