NFL is back (stereotypes and all)

Fans watch the Kansas City Chiefs during NFL football training camp, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. A football-starved nation is getting its games back with the start of the NFL season, but many worry that attending games or get-togethers will lead to a new surge in coronavirus infections. NFL football will kick off Thursday, Sept. 10, in Kansas City at a stadium that's allowing 17,000 fans inside. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Dalton Walker

Not in Our Honor: NFL team 'may address the more blatant racist behaviors in the stadium, it does not address the overall racism and appropriation of Native culture inherent with utilizing a race of People as a mascot'

Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

The NFL season is back. And it's the perfect moment to change everything. Fans will be so glad to have any football they might not care if their cheesy stereotype is in quarantine.

Only it's not going to happen.

The stereotypes continue as if nothing has changed starting tonight.

Defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City opens the NFL season on Thursday at home against Houston under the COVID-19 pandemic umbrella. Barred are fans wearing headdresses, face paint and stereotypical Native clothing at home games. The nickname remains and the team said it's discussing the future of its tomahawk chop celebration amid complaints that it’s racist

Not in Our Honor, a coalition of Native leaders and Native organizations in the Kansas City area, issued a statement on Wednesday calling the decision to ban headdresses and face paint a right decision but saying more needs to be done.

“While it may address the more blatant racist behaviors in the stadium, it does not address the overall racism and appropriation of Native culture inherent with utilizing a race of People as a mascot,” read the statement. The coalition also called for the end of “racialized Native American branding.”

Students at nearby Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, are also among those who demanded changes.

“Using this mascot and having this fan base of predominantly white people wearing face paint and headdresses and doing the tomahawk chop, and it energizes them and gives them this sense of power, and then thinking there is nothing wrong with doing that is just mind boggling to me,” said William Wilkinson, Haskell’s former University Student Government Association president.

The pandemic effectively canceled the entire NFL offseason along with all four preseason games. Thursday’s game at Arrowhead Stadium will be the first game for anybody since February when Kansas City won the championship. It also means the crowd at what is historically one of the toughest road venues in the league will be limited to about 17,000 fans with face masks and social distancing restrictions in place.

The kickoff of the NFL season illustrates on a global stage the nation’s determination to resume its most popular sport in the middle of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 200,000 Americans.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said the NFL has the resources to protect players by testing them frequently. He’s more concerned about fans cheering in the stands. Yelling spreads virus particles in the air. Even with a lot of empty seats in a stadium because of capacity limits, fans may need to stand in line for bathrooms or concessions where it’s difficult to stay 6 feet apart.

(Related story: How the Kansas City Chiefs got their name and the Boy Scout Tribe of Mic-O-Say)

Amid increased scrutiny and after the Washington NFL team finally dropped its racist nickname this summer, Kansas City barely budged.

A nationwide push for racial justice following the police-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis played a role in Washington’s decision and forced other professional sports franchises with Native mascot imagery to rethink. The Canadian Football League’s Edmonton franchise joined Washington and dropped its nickname.

Wilkinson, Navajo, Cherokee, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, said that eventually Kansas City’s nickname also must change.

“It dehumanizes us and gives us Native Americans this picture of being this savage beast that is hungry for fighting when in real life we are nothing like that,” said the 22-year-old business major from Madison, Wisconsin.

Gaylene Crouser, executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, said it’s wrong to use “a race of people as a mascot.” Her group has demanded changes for years and she thinks the momentum may be shifting.

“It has always been swept under the rug, but because the Washington team was leaned on so hard that they made the change, now some of the other ones are starting to feel the heat,” she said. “I hope this is the beginning of the end of this acceptable racism.”

(Related article: Super Bowl’s chops, chants and cringes)

Calls to address racial issues have become more prevalent in the wake of Floyd’s death. Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes during an arrest over counterfeit money. The officer and three other officers were fired and have been charged in Floyd’s death.

The Washington NFL franchise will go by the Washington Football Team for the 2020 season, giving the organization time to choose a new, full-time name. Owner Dan Snyder dropped the name amid pressure from sponsors and after decades of criticism from Native American advocacy groups.

Washington opens its season on Sunday at home against Philadelphia. The team will keep its burgundy and gold colors and replace the old logo on helmets with a player’s jersey number. All references to the old nickname and logo were to be removed from the team's headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia, and FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

(Related story: Washington NFL team kicks out R-word)

As part of its social justice awareness initiatives, players will be permitted to wear decals on the back of helmets, or patches on team caps, displaying names or phrases to honor victims of racism and/or police brutality.

"The NFL stands with the Black community, the players, clubs and fans," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week. "Confronting recent systemic racism with tangible and productive steps is absolutely essential. We will not relent in our work."

Four years later, the NFL admitted it was wrong and said it now supports Colin Kaepernick in his fight against racial injustice, encouraging players to take a stand - or a knee - for the cause. Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem and his demonstration was misinterpreted by those in power as an expression that demeaned the flag and country. But many who opposed Kaepernick's stance now say they understand and support the movement.

Still, not one NFL owner has hired Kaepernick, a talented quarterback who led the San Francisco 49ers to within 7 yards of defeating Baltimore in Super Bowl 47. The 32-year-old Kaepernick hasn't been offered a contract since he last played in 2016. While is he not in the NFL, EA Sports has given the free agent a spot in its "Madden 21" game.

The league plans to play “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” which is widely considered the Black national anthem, along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games this season. NFL end zones will be inscribed this season with two slogans: "It Takes All Of Us" on one side, "End Racism" on the other.

Beyond protests, everyone agrees action is necessary.

"The athletes have a lot of power as we're seeing," Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "They have a lot of influence, especially in their own communities. They have the biggest microphone in their communities. So create dialogue with their local elected officials, mayors, district attorneys. Athletes can call on these people in their towns to have better communication between the neighborhood and elected officials, police unions and police districts all over the country. I think that relationship can be better.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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