Marcus Peters’ shoulders rose as he was told the boss wanted to talk with him. This was in October, leading up to a game against the Steelers, which doubled as the Chiefs’ annual military appreciation day.
The purpose of the meeting was understanding. Clark Hunt, the Chiefs’ chairman, has been clear that he wants all his players to stand for the national anthem. He is also reserved, described by one league source as one of the NFL’s least intimidating owners, and according to a second source went out of his way through words and body language to make it clear to Peters that this meeting was to be man-to-man, not boss-to-employee.
Hunt wanted to understand Peters’ perspective, and Peters wanted to offer his own in return. Accounts from several people familiar with the meeting align with the same story — an honest exchange with respectful disagreement.
That Sunday, for the first time since 2015, Peters did not sit or kneel or ride a bike or raise a fist or otherwise visibly protest racial inequality during the national anthem.
He stayed in the locker room instead, with a staff member who let him know when the song finished. Peters will not be pressured into anything. This is a decision he made on his own.
“I think the meeting meant a lot to him,” according to one of the sources. “I think after that, he thought, ‘I’ve made my point, and I’m not going to back down, but I can stay back and listen to my music.’”
That wasn’t all to come from the meeting. Peters has focused his charitable giving in Oakland, where he grew up literally across the street from his high school football field. He does camps, holds a carnival, spends time, offers advice, even paid for some kids to travel to Africa.
Hunt complimented Peters on that, but also encouraged him to do some similar work in Kansas City. Shortly after, Peters told the Chiefs he wanted to find a poor neighborhood and give out turkeys for Thanksgiving. The organization suggested where to buy the turkeys, but the rest of it was Peters’ idea and action. Soon, he’ll do something similar with a coat drive.
Many inside the franchise see these as significant steps, hopeful that along with time it will help mend a clearly broken relationship between Peters and many Chiefs fans.
But starting with Peters throwing an official’s flag into the stands against the Jets and walking off the field before another loss was completed, this past week further exposed a deeper truth about a man and city so fundamentally different and diametrically opposed.
The most divisive issue around the Chiefs is reignited — Peters smiling and high-fiving a Jets player as he walked off the field, later coming back out with no socks, and an unprecedented suspension from coach Andy Reid. Everyone has taken a side, from those bothered by the protest to those who have long thought he’s unfairly treated.
Peters in Kansas City is something of a powder keg. He has never been in a place quite like this, and Kansas City has never had athlete quite like him. This is an arranged marriage, one built because a general manager and top lieutenant who are no longer here thought his talent was worth the 18th pick of the 2015 draft.
The relationship, by virtually any measure, has never been rockier than at this very moment.
Two theories about Marcus Peters were presented to Kansas City’s mayor. This was on the 29th floor of city hall, in Sly James’ office. He was multi-tasking with thank-you cards and a note of encouragement to Royals manager Ned Yost, who had recently taken a nasty fall.
James, who is African-American, put his pen down to listen.
The first theory is that the self-segregation of so much of Kansas City makes this a particularly important and particularly difficult place to have any productive conversation about race. The seven-figure mansions around Loose Park are just a mile from Troost, but the neighborhoods they represent are effectively opposite in race and wealth.
Without that interaction, it becomes easy and natural for stereotypes to engrain on each side. Peters is an ungrateful and disrespectful millionaire, or those who don’t like him are bigots who mangle his intended message. In many ways, opinion on this depends on geography.
The second theory is that Peters’ background and his new city were always going to clash, two cultures that cannot live in harmony. Oakland is where the Black Panthers started, a place where expression and individualism are not just celebrated but in many ways required.
Kansas City is more laid-back, conservative, a place where many African Americans say the expectation is to fit in — “aspire to be the safe black guy,” in the words of one Chiefs fan who moved from Kansas City to Oakland.
“I grew up in Johnson County and there are things inside of me that I wouldn’t display because I know what the reaction would be,” said Prentiss Earl, a black man from Kansas City and entrepreneur involved in many local organizations. “Here, you don’t get 100 percent of what someone is because they know the environment would reject it. You don’t have that in Oakland.”
James nodded his head listening to both theories. He’s heard this before, talked about this before, and wants to spread it to a larger audience.
“There’s way too little relationship building,” James said. “Too little familiarity. I go to way too many meetings where they’re all white, and I’ll purposely say to them, ‘Who’s not in this meeting and tell me why and what we’re going to do about it?’
“We’ll never reach that greatness until we start understanding the true meaning of integration. Not ‘tolerance integration,’ and not ‘I work with a black guy’ integration. But real integration. It’s been a problem in this city for a long time. It remains a problem today.
“Look, Marcus is from Oakland. That’s a totally different cultural environment than Kansas City, especially for black folks. Kansas City is much more laid back. Been described as ‘Kansas City Nice.’ He’s not ‘Kansas City Nice.’
“I don’t mean that as he’s not nice. He simply has a different approach. I don’t have a problem with that approach. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for his approach. A lot of people wouldn’t be having this conversation without him, and it makes them uncomfortable, but that’s OK.”
This is a terrific opportunity, for all of us, no matter which side of Troost we live on. Even barbecue preferences are often divided at least in part by race. Nothing brings Kansas City together like the Chiefs, and here is a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback pushing a conversation that cannot be ignored from Olathe to Odessa, Baldwin to Blue Springs, from Independence and Prospect to 63rd and Ward Parkway.
So far, we’re mostly blowing that opportunity.
This was always going to be a delicate mix. Peters comes from a culture of strong self-expression, and Kansas City is generally more conservative. Peters hasn’t said much about why he protests, but last year he said it was in part to show he loves being black, which goes against the cultural norms many African-Americans in Kansas City say they experience.
According to the Chiefs’ presentation to host the NFL draft, there are 23 military bases within 300 miles of Arrowhead Stadium and 217,000 active, reserve or retired soldiers within 140 miles. Maybe it’s ironic that this is the same place that yells “Chiefs” at the end of the anthem, but anything that can be perceived as anti-military is sensitive here.
All of that is context, which no matter what else existed would make Peters’ message harder to land here than, say, Seattle or Atlanta.
“It’s trickier here,” is how one team source put it.
In Seattle, defensive lineman Michael Bennett (who shares an agent with Peters and Marshawn Lynch, among others, and has kneeled during the anthem) is a spokesman for issues relating to race. Peters hasn’t talked as much about it, and the team has not encouraged him to.
At least part of that is a lack of belief that it would help — Peters isn’t going to soften or clean his words, and many who disagree with him aren’t going to hear the message otherwise.
At least one major sponsor has expressed frustration about the protest’s effect on business, but none have pulled out of contracts or diminished their commitments. The team hears from angry fans, but few or none have cancelled season tickets.
But even if the controversy is not directly impacting the Chiefs’ business, the club still considers it a problem and remains mostly vexed about what to do with it.
Kansas City is a conservative market, with a strong military presence, and a general expectation that athletes stay in line. Peters might be the most expressive and unapologetic athlete in Kansas City history. He has expressed support of the military and belief in America’s future but is not interested in repeating the point or following any cultural norms.
One team source described the situation as “complicated,” and noted that Peters is a leader in the locker room. No easy answers exist with a player unmoved to make his case publicly and a fan base that is at least largely unmoved to listen anyway.
The flag throw and the walk-off and the suspension have created another round of anger, on all sides, the positions by now planted. The number willing to listen to the other side continues to drop.
The opportunity for something productive to come of this continues to slip away.
Vernon Howard is a pastor and one of Kansas City’s most active civil rights leaders. He is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which traces its history back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.
Howard was so moved by Peters’ protests that he wanted to give him the group’s president’s award at next month’s national conference.
“His is a very peaceful and professional protest and is courageous and in line with how athletes have used their platform to speak to these very issues within these communities they have come from and emerged out of,” Howard said. “I commend him for acknowledging that it has been protest and activism that has allowed him the opportunity to live such a blessed life in America. He hasn’t forgotten. That’s commendable.”
There is “some community energy bubbling” from Peters’ protests, in the words of Sam Mann, another local pastor and civil rights activist.
Howard is organizing what he calls “sacred conversations,” in which representatives from his and other black churches invite themselves to white churches in the suburbs in an attempt to understand each other. He said he is hopeful, and that Peters’ platform is helping move the conversation forward.
Others aren’t as optimistic. Larry Clopton is a longtime youth football coach in the urban core, and said he’s left Chiefs groups on Facebook because of how often the conversations turned to Peters without what he thought was open-mindedness.
“People need to understand exactly what he’s doing this for, and I don’t think they’re taking the time,” Clopton said. “So it made me too frustrated. Facebook is supposed to be entertainment.”
Earl said he sees it similarly.
“If people want to understand, then yes, productive conversations can come from this,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like anyone is interested in understanding where he’s coming from. I’m going, even though I’m an optimistic kind of person, I don’t see how that scenario plays out. Simply because people aren’t interested.”
Back on the 29th floor at city hall, the mayor continued with his point about pushing this conversation to places and people that aren’t necessarily comfortable with it. Optimism is part of James’ job description, but he remembers how often he and other veterans were treated badly upon returning from Vietnam.
If that has changed so drastically to such wide support for soldiers, why can’t something similar happen with race? Productive conversations often start with arguments, he said, so maybe the productive part is still on the way.
But it’s going to require people to stop assigning their own perceptions to Peters’ stated purpose, and to at least be willing to listen.
“We have to find a way to address this that as soon as it comes up people don’t shut down or start a fight,” James said. “I don’t (know how to do that), but there are people who do. I want to find them and bring them in and start that. This is a subject that has to be discussed.”