Hampton Stevens: Kansas City Chiefs should lead the way and take a new name

08/08/2014 3:30 PM

08/11/2014 1:34 PM

Kansas City's NFL franchise should change its name. It should do it now, before the Washington Redskins are forced to change.

The team should change names because it will make the ownership and city look progressive. The franchise should do it because, incidentally, it’ll make money for the team. But mostly the Chiefs should change its name because it's the right thing to do.

The name “Chiefs” is offensive. Granted, it isn’t as offensive as “Redskins” or Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ grinning mascot. But, really, is “least offensive stereotype” where we want to set the bar?

We can do better. The “Chiefs” moniker, along with the Arrowhead logo and tomahawk chop, are blatant appropriations of Native American imagery for the purpose of making money. Worse yet, that Native American theme encourages the truly embarrassing spectacle of fans coming to games in fake headdress and warpaint. That’s not only offensive, it’s tacky — exactly the same as white folks putting on blackface.

Yes, the Chiefs are named in honor of a former mayor, “Chief” H. Roe Bartle. But Bartle got that nickname after founding the Tribe of Mic-O-Say — a Native American-based honor society in the Boy Scouts of America. In other words, more minstrel show-like appropriation of Native American imagery.

Frankly, the fierce resistance to team name changes is baffling. As Jerry Seinfeld famously said, sports fans are basically rooting for laundry. For baseball fans in Boston and Chicago, that’s literally true. Their clubs are named after socks. Or, more accurately, sox.

Mascots simply aren’t why we care about our teams. What matters is how the players represent the city. Rest assured, Jamaal Charles breaking free for touchdown will still be exciting no matter what logo he happens to have on his shirt.

For proof, look across the state line. Sporting KC has no appropriated imagery. It has no imagery at all. The club is simply named for the city.

Yet the Cauldron still boils on game day, and fans still buy merchandise by the truckload. Whine though they might, football fans would do the same. We would flock to the store to buy the new KC gear, meaning new revenue for the league.

People opposed to changing racist team names invariably come up with a list of objections, mostly based on nitpicking semantics and reduction to absurdity. They will note how the Pittsburgh Pirates are named for criminals on the high seas or wonder whether animal rights activists are upset by Dolphins, Bears and Tigers. They will point to all the place-names derived from Native American words, like Shawnee, Wyandotte, Kansas and Missouri, and ask whether those, too, must be eradicated from the language.

These arguments are willfully obtuse. Yes, someone afflicted by gigantism could be offended by “New York Giants.” That doesn't have the slightest impact on whether the names Chiefs, Indians, Braves and Redskins are racist. And there’s a painfully clear distinction between place-names taken from tribal culture and a huge corporation like the NFL using a cartoon version of that culture to make millions of dollars.

The Redskins are already losing the right to do so. In June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office canceled six of the team’s trademarks because they are disparaging to Native Americans. The Chiefs, Braves and Indians are probably next.

Rather than buck history’s tide, fighting for the right to offend Native Americans, we should embrace change. Nothing would be lost by changing “Chiefs” to something like Red Dogs or Red Shirts, and much would be gained.

Getting rid of our racist symbols and iconography would, in itself, be a powerful symbolic gesture. Doing so now, before the courts force it, would show that Kansas Citians are modern and thoughtful.

The change would make national news, bringing Kansas City into the spotlight for all the right reasons. The Hunt family would look smart and progressive compared with Dan Snyder, the self-destructively combative Redskins owner.

It would give us all an opportunity to buy some sweet, new red and gold merchandise. Most importantly, it’s simply the right thing to do.

Hampton Stevens of Kansas City is a national and regional freelance writer. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.

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