Over the past few years, team names and their history have gained attention from media and fans alike. Franchises across professional sports, such as the Washington Football Team in the NFL and the newly-named Cleveland Guardians in the MLB, are among the first to make a permanent change in response to troubling backgrounds and offensive meanings—intended or not.
Much of the controversy stems from the use of American Indian names paired with stereotypical imagery or phrases. Following the changes made by Cleveland and Washington, NFL fans and pundits alike have looked to the K.C. Chiefs as the next to change. Even the Kansas City Star editorial board spoke up, asking the Chiefs to follow the example set by Cleveland and Washington.
In response to the Cleveland name change, Kansas City Chiefs President Mark Donovan said, “We have a really good American Indian working group that provides us real guidance and feedback, perspective on this issue. Obviously, we knew about the Cleveland decision a year-plus ago, so we know this was going to happen”.
KC Chiefs name change feels inevitable at this point.
A change of imagery is nothing new to the Chiefs or their fan base. The team stopped using Warpaint and his headdress-wearing rider as a mascot after the 1989 season. Featuring Susie the cheerleader as the rider, Warpaint made a return in 2009 for the AFL 50th Anniversary.
Donovan also said yesterday that the team will no longer have Warpaint as a mascot moving forward. Donovan said, “We’ll continue to have the conversations. We’ll continue to take the path that we’ve taken. Educating ourselves, educating our fans, creating opportunities to raise awareness.”
Seeing as the Chiefs have already made steps to abandon some negative imagery, it seems likely that the next step will be a name change. In 2020, the Chiefs enacted a rule stating fans who show up to the stadium in headdresses or face paint in a manner that portrays American Indian culture will be banned from the stadium. The use of the tomahawk chop (albeit with a closed fist instead of open palm), and other game-day rituals have not stopped at Arrowhead Stadium, leading some fans to question if the team is doing enough.
The Chiefs currently represent one of the final teams to take action. There is no glory in waiting until the last possible moment to make a change that feels inevitable. These discussions should begin sooner rather than later, and while these discussions will likely be uncomfortable for team personnel and fans alike, they are necessary. However, the Chiefs and their fans have isolated those who disagree with the team’s imagery and phrases and have pushed would-be fans away from the team.
Considering the fact that the team currently has no real ties to the American Indian community, and that the name “Chiefs” comes from the nickname of former Kansas City mayor Harold Bartle, there is no standing relevance to the Chiefs name. Harold Bartle created the “Tribe of Mic-O-Say” as an honor camp for the Boy Scouts of America, and Bartle’s nickname from those days, “The Chief”, then became the name for the new NFL franchise when Lamar Hunt moved the team to Kansas City.
There are those who think a reference to a nickname of a former K.C. mayor isn’t demeaning to the American Indian community. However, using the name Chief is the true issue. All of these other concerns—the costumes, the mascots, the “traditions”—come directly from a name that is attempting to honor American Indian culture yet the “chief” they are referencing in the name is a man who was never an actual chief. Because Chief is a name of honor, it has provided fans a pass to say that the name is a help to the American Indian community while they engage in other stereotypical actions. The team has undergone subtle changes, but that’s a dip of the toe into the waters of true change and reconciliation towards those they have offended (and continue to offend).
There are many names available to Kansas City’s beloved football team, such as the K.C. Wolves (thanks to the popular mascot), the Kansas City Kings/Monarchs (paying homage to the basketball team of the past and their neighbors, the Royals), or the Kansas City Miners (the history of the great state of Missouri). The options are plenty, and the specifics are negotiable, but at this point, a name change seems necessary and inevitable.