For Kansas City Chiefs fans, the line between loving and hating Marcus Peters was crossed when he began kneeling during the national anthem. Chiefs fans will hem and haw and rewrite history to say it was about throwing a flag in the stands, getting into sideline arguments with coaches, or committing the greatest of cornerback sins by “not tackling.”
It was none of those things. It was the kneeling. If it was the on-field attitude, Travis Kelce throwing a towel at a ref and also getting into sideline arguments with coaches hasn’t seemed to put a damper on the fanbase’s adoration of him.
Kansas City is midwestern. Much like my home of Indiana, “midwestern hospitality” often means “I will be polite to you as long as you don’t suggest any millimeter-left-of-center ideas anywhere near me.”
Kansas City being metropolitan does create a bit of a buffer, but the sociopolitical makeup of the hardest of core fans isn’t exactly progressive. So, of course, kneeling during the anthem struck a nerve. Those disrespectful athletes were making a mockery of the flag and military, after all. There is no other interpretation, and NFL fans are the grand, untouchable arbiters of being respectful, so they know when you’re the opposite. We gotta keep politics out of sports, which we’ll do by running someone out of town for not fitting into our specific little patriot box.
I wonder how many Chiefs fans who oppose any changes to the team’s Native American imagery and fan behaviors simultaneously hold the belief that the kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful to the American flag and military. I’m genuinely curious how big of a chunk the center of that Venn diagram would be.
Chiefs fans like to broad-stroke every aspect of the team’s and fans’ usage of Native imagery as a “tradition” that “honors” Native Americans. Of course, the only aspect of Native culture any sports team seems interested in depicting is that of a warrior aesthetic.
As human or human-ish mascots or team names go in just the NFL, we’ve got cowboys, a meat-packing company, saints, giants, titanic gods, prospectors, and citizens of Texas. But if the theme of a club is Native American, it’s almost inherently also war.
So when these teams are crafting their imagery and fans are dressing up for games, they are ostensibly appropriating a cartoon version of many cultures’ militaries into one conglomerate headdress-and-tomahawk identity. In case that wasn’t clear, that’s pretty much the definition of racist stereotyping. It’d be one thing if Native mascots were as diverse and eclectic as literally all other human mascots, but every single one is essentially the same mascot repackaged infinite times over.
Here is where the willful cognitive dissonance of fans lies. When NFL players kneel during the anthem to bring attention to police brutality, they are being beyond-the-pale disrespectful of their own culture’s military and patriotic traditions. But when teams use a caricature of another culture’s war aesthetic it’s “honoring” that culture. When fans show up in full redface and collectively chant and chop, that’s a fun tradition. Couldn’t possibly be disrespectful.
Everyone who isn’t you is a cartoon, but you deserve the utmost reverence and cannot stand the disrespect of even a single knee on turf.
For the record, I don’t know what the right answer to the mascot debate is as relates specifically to the Chiefs. In fact, I don’t think there is a “right” answer. The Chiefs as a name and mascot isn’t offensive in a vacuum the way Washington’s now-former team name or the Cleveland Indians now-former Chief Wahoo logo were.
Certainly, things like the chop and fans dressing up as cartoon Indians shouldn’t have ever been a thing. It should be easy enough to keep the headdresses out of the stadium, but it’ll be much more difficult to eliminate the chop. Even if the Chiefs stop actively promoting it, that won’t stop fans from doing it.
Now, 2020 bringing the mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter has certainly softened the views of some fans who only two or three years ago would have been livid over mid-anthem-kneeling. One would hope that has mostly to do with dark realities of power and abuse finally be faced and acknowledged, but that is never the exclusive reason for perspective shifts.
Specifically for the Chiefs fans who fall into that group, it’s very difficult for them to keep wearing the costume of righteous anger when Patrick Mahomes is on board with the movement. You’ll still find some Chiefs fans on Twitter threatening a boycott if players kneel in 2020, but unsurprisingly, the most talented player in NFL history, reigning Super Bowl MVP, and promiser of a dynasty becoming a public face of athletes supporting BLM has caused many of those fans to either go silent or do a complete 180°.
It feels as if, much like with Black Lives Matter, the only thing that may sway fans into looking inward and being willing to make some changes to things like the chop would be active player support. If Mahomes, Mathieu, Hill, Kelce, etc. were publicly on-board with working to make the Chiefs, as an organization and fanbase, more actively conscious of the aesthetic they are crafting around Native American culture, fans who would otherwise kick and scream like infants may get on board, albeit perhaps begrudgingly.
That does, ultimately, make it feel as if it’d be a lot easier to just change the name than change minds in the fanbase. And that’s probably true. But, as fans, if you want to keep the name, you’ll likely have to evolve and learn that the chop isn’t some vital, honored tradition that cannot be altered. It’s just a racist thing you like to do.