We’re not going to debate whether Kansas City’s NFL team should change its name. It should.
What we’re going to do, as the team and its fans celebrate their second trip to the Super Bowl in as many years, is spend a couple of minutes listening to the people who’ve been peacefully protesting before games near an entrance to Arrowhead Stadium since long before the team was a contender for anything.
Sometimes it’s just a handful of people, sometimes it’s 50. Rhonda LeValdo, who now teaches journalism at Haskell Indian Nations University, organized the first such demonstration when she was a student at the University of Kansas. It was October 2005.
“I got some KU students and some Haskell students to protest a game when Kansas City was playing Washington. I thought that would be a big hit-two-nails-on-the-head kind of thing,” she remembers. “Man, there were a lot of people who came in from across the country for that protest.”
They branded their action Not In Our Honor, a rejoinder to the eyerolling argument that making cartoons based on a group of people pays homage to them.
It’s been more than 15 years now.
“We’ve been out there every single time if Kansas City was playing Washington, at least once a year, to make sure our voices were heard,” LeValdo says. “This year we’ve been out there for every game.”
As a mass communications teacher, LeValdo knows how to properly exercise First Amendment rights. The group protests on a sidewalk — a public space near a bus stop — where she knows they’re allowed.
“At Haskell, I teach about freedom of speech and the incitement standard,” she says. “So seeing what happened (at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6) was a whole teaching thing for me to use. I teach my students: You don’t want to be inciting something because you’re going to get arrested. We’re peaceful protesters.”
The same can’t always be said for football fans.
“It’s name calling, they do the tomahawk chop in front of us, flip us off, it’s all sorts of things,” LeValdo says. “Before the election they were saying ‘Trump,’ which was kind of weird. Last time we were out there, a guy pulled up in his truck right in front of us, stopped and yelled at us to F off, go home and F ourselves.”
It’s scarier when fans have clearly been drinking. LeValdo appreciates the fact that there’s always a group of helpful and friendly police nearby.
In one way, their efforts don’t seem to have made a difference — the whole world could see that last year. And even as Washington announced it would finally change its racist team name, the Kansas City situation grew absurd as the NFL tried to promote social justice this season in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“At their first game, in the endzone they had (painted) ‘End Racism,’ right above the Chiefs name, which is just dumb,” LeValdo says. “They’ve had baby steps with banning the headdresses and the makeup, but they still have the tomahawk chop, the drum they beat, the spirit leader who bangs the drum, the horse Warpaint. It’s all still bad.”
Yes, the team has been working with a group of American Indians to try to make its “traditions” less offensive. But, c’mon.
“One of the things I’ve always said is you can’t just be a little bit racist,” LeValdo says. “You are racist or you’re not. This is racist.”
Away from the front office, their effort seems to be working.
“Recently some veterans groups started coming out to stand with us,” LeValdo says. “And we’ve had a lot of people reach out to us.”
She’s heard from someone in Hays, where there’s a petition to change the high school mascot. An 11-year-old girl is pushing Shawnee Mission North High School to change its mascot. But as Haskell journalists reported in December, “nearly 1 out of every 10 schools in the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) appropriates Native imagery or culture.”
The team name and mascot situation isn’t technically about life or death, like Black Lives Matter or the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous people that some Kansas Legislators are trying to address. But it’s a related example of how white people are so weirdly unwilling to respect the experiences of people of color.
“I just wish people would understand from our perspective why this is so hurtful to us, to have that constant chop and the drum and everything out there,” LeValdo says. “I hear it on TV, on the radio, on billboards, walking down the street, people are saying ‘Chiefs!’ ”
There’s no escape from it.
“It’s totally nuts,” she says, “that people are so committed to their name and things they do at their games that they’re not willing to give it up.”
I’ll put it to my fellow white people another way. If someone tells you you’re hurting them and asks you to stop, why do you want to keep hurting them?