Fans should accept the Kansas City Chiefs as the NFL’s murky antihero

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - AUGUST 24: Kansas City Chiefs players prepare to run out of the tunnel prior to the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Arrowhead Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - AUGUST 24: Kansas City Chiefs players prepare to run out of the tunnel prior to the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Arrowhead Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Kansas City Chiefs fans need to accept the fact that their always likeable franchise has made some uncomfortable moves, for some, in the name of winning.

The Kansas City Chiefs have spent the majority of their existence as likable and boring. A Midwestern franchise with an insular base that kept mostly to themselves, Chiefs fans were known and appreciated for the loyalty and passion they exuded for their favorite football team.

The likable, boring Chiefs did a lot of winning in the regular season and a lot of losing in the postseason. It’s part of what made them so likable to the rest of the NFL’s fan bases. Year after year, the Chiefs would be talented, but they posed no real threat to anyone.

Then the 2000s hit, and with them came ineptitude. The perpetual B+ franchise was suddenly just barely above a Cleveland Browns-tier loser. The franchise faded into the NFL’s background, popping its head above water and sneaking into the playoffs only a couple times between 2004 and 2012, always only to be smacked back down into the basement where it belonged.

Andy Reid’s arrival in 2013 immediately vaulted the Chiefs back into that B+ territory the franchise had found such a comfortable home in throughout the 1990s. Reid’s career even before he came to K.C. was a mirror of the Chiefs franchise; a lot of winning with nothing but stats and playoff heartbreak to show for it.

But B+ wasn’t good enough for Reid and co. anymore, so they traded up in the 2017 NFL Draft for Patrick Mahomes. They wanted A+, and they got it – with extra credit.

With Mahomes’ superstardom has come more attention than the Chiefs have ever received on a national stage. With that attention, I theorized last year the Chiefs would see themselves start as a darling and slowly morph into a villain. The thought being they’d be so good that eventually they’d be too good to be likable.

But Mahomes is incredibly difficult to dislike. His comparison to Brett Favre is even more accurate in his personality than his play. He makes football more fun. He’s affable and authentic and kind of an awkward goober in front of the camera. Juxtaposed against his hyper-confident gunslinging play, he’s the exact contradiction people demand of their athletes. It’ll be a long time before Mahomes is hated for being too good.

Plus, watching the Chiefs’ offense is an intense high—a borderline religious experience. It’s the beauty of a mad scientist’s vision finally being fully realized, with Mahomes having been Reid’s final missing piece to his offense-of-the-future puzzle.

So I was wrong in my vision of the Chiefs as the NFL’s next great heel. It turns out they’re already something a bit more complicated.

K.C. is primed to be the one to finally take down New England’s evil empire—something the rest of the league has been desperate to see for seemingly an eternity. But in building their juggernaut, they’ve sacrificed much of their boring, likable persona, extending from the team through the fan base. To an outsider, the Chiefs may be the NFL’s Walter White, shedding their mild-mannered skin in an attempt to become a kingpin, adopting amorality in the process; they can taste the success they’ve been clawing for, and they will get it by any means necessary.

The Chiefs are the NFL’s antihero.

Signing Tyreek Hill to an extension after his tumultuous offseason when the team had already traded for another player with a less-than-stellar history in Frank Clark all but assures them a spot in the pits of many football fans’ stomachs where something incredibly fun to watch makes you feel a little guilty and gross. Those feelings are valid and fair, and they’re feelings Chiefs fans themselves have no-doubt experienced watching other successful yet ethically ambiguous teams during K.C.’s long run as the boring good guys.

As for how Chiefs fans are handling their first extended period as supporters of one of the more morally gray teams, it expectedly hasn’t been all that pretty.

Particularly on Twitter, the fan base, once mostly respected and beloved around the league as one of the NFL’s best, has allowed their passion to turn them into a vicious parody of themselves. The Tyreek Hill saga was blatantly mishandled by a select few members of the K.C. media, but the threat of losing such a dynamic playmaker sent Chiefs fans into a toxic downward spiral, hurling every and any attack at any and all regional media.

The fans hated that Hill was being unfairly demonized for words he said, so they got Kevin Kietzman fired for words he said. Whether Kietzman deserved to lose his gig or not—he did—isn’t important. The gleeful, vengeful hypocrisy made Chiefs fans look as obnoxious and foolish as the host they turned against.

The fans hated that the Kansas City Star had negative opinion pieces about Hill, so they relentlessly tweet-vomited toxicity at Star news reporters who wrote no such opinion pieces. Apparently, some members of Chiefs Kingdom on Twitter are still struggling to comprehend the basic structure of a newspaper.

There aren’t two sides to every story. Our culture is very binary in that way; Coke or Pepsi, Democrat or Republican, black or white. Reality, of course, is much more nuanced. Most stories have infinite sides, and those sides have infinite sides. Social media makes it more difficult than ever to exist in a nuanced space, as hot takes and either/ors draw the likes and retweets that trigger the dopamine high that we unconsciously chase every time we open one of our glowing screens.

So I get it. It’s much more viscerally rewarding and satisfying to believe an entire city of competing media outlets are conspiring to tear down your favorite wide receiver than it is to be conflicted and thoughtful about the massive, cumbersome, amorphous gray blob that is the Tyreek Hill story. Just like it’s more viscerally rewarding and satisfying to sit atop an imaginary moral high ground and believe he’s the scum stuck to scum’s shoes.

It seems obvious the most likely scenario here is that Hill is not as innocent as Chiefs fans want to portray him, nor is he as guilty as many people outside of Chiefs Kingdom believe. But his existence on the roster as evidence of an amoral, winning-above-all mindset is a completely legitimate critique. Especially when, as touched on earlier, the Chiefs went out of their way to add Clark to their roster.

So I can’t blame anyone in or outside of the Chiefs fan base for being thrilled by the excellence of Mahomes but also feeling uncomfortable or gross or angry when that excellence results in Hill throwing up another peace sign on his way to the end zone. The same goes for whenever Clark forces a fumble or gets a momentum-shifting sack. It’s not weak to feel unsettled when people with problematic pasts are exalted with little-to-no demand for open atonement. The NFL isn’t just another job; it’s one that places athletes in the public eye and inserts them as important members of their community. I don’t believe athletes should feel obligated to be role models, but I do believe that you cannot both reject the elevated status in your community athletic fame provides and still be the stereotypical good guy.

All of this isn’t to say you shouldn’t enjoy the Chiefs this season. Far from it, in fact. This is easily the most excited I’ve ever been for a year of football. Like most Chiefs fans and many NFL fans in general, this is the first time I’ve ever felt anything less than a Super Bowl victory for K.C. is failure.

But the vitriol that erupts from Chiefs fans online, particularly on Twitter, toward anyone criticizing the team’s handling of Hill or trading for Clark is childish, tone deaf, and entirely exhausting to witness. There’s been a lot of screaming and crying about an allegedly biased collective media. The irony that these claims of bias are being hurled by lifelong, diehard fanatics of the Chiefs is apparently lost on those same fanatics.

I fully agree that Hill has gotten a bit of a bad rap. But I also know the objective truth of his past does not really exist anymore. He pled guilty to some brutal allegations, and remained wrapped up in what was obviously a very toxic relationship. There’s a two-way street there. That much is undeniable. We’ll never know what actually happened throughout that relationship, and if that unknowing is enough to make someone uncomfortable with him maintaining a superstar status, that’s 100% fair.

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It doesn’t make you a beacon of rational thought to be able to either turn off your awareness of or simply not care about uncomfortable realities involving your favorite athletes. It makes you the exact opposite.