KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Washington Redskins were stripped of their trademark and thrust into the crosshairs of the Capital Beltway. The Cleveland Indians are at the center of a forthcoming federal lawsuit for a reported $9 billion over their smiling "Chief Wahoo" logo.
Could the Kansas City Chiefs be under fire next?
"I can’t say that (someone) is going to be suing the Chiefs," John Learned, who earlier this week revealed plans to launch the American Indian Center of the Great Plains in Kansas City, told FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "But I know there’s going to be someone wanting to question the Chiefs and some of the things that they do.
"They’re going to come after them. I just know they are."
Learned, who played football at Kansas under Don Fambrough in the early ’70s and later coached volleyball at KU and Missouri-Kansas City, said Native American groups in the area met last December to discuss the Chiefs — and the political correctness of the nickname and iconography used by the popular NFL franchise — when an employee at a Belton, Mo., Sonic drive-in arranged this sign adjacent to the restaurant before the Kansas City-Washington game on Dec. 8:
Sonic’s corporate arm released an apology shortly thereafter, noting that the sign was "in poor taste."
"What happened is that they called this meeting together," said Learned, whose mother was the first female ever to lead the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. "They were upset and they didn’t know what to do. They asked me, and I said, ‘Those people (who put up the sign) are ignorant and they’re idiots.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t waste my time with them.’"
But with the Redskins nickname becoming a national debate, and a Cleveland-based Native American group, "People Not Mascots," revealing plans Wednesday for a $9 billion lawsuit against the Indians to be filed in July, Learned says, the political climate is such that the Chiefs could come under fire themselves locally.
"The Washington Redskins (debate) has gotten some real traction, (so) some of those other (teams) like the Cleveland Indians and probably the Kansas City Chiefs are probably going to come under some sort of attack," Learned said.
"And I don’t want that, because I think we can work through anything through education and understanding each other. And that’s what my approach was."
Learned said "several groups" have talked to him about joining them in discussing legal action against the Chiefs, "but you know what’s going to happen — just like what normally happens: Money and influence from outside will come in."
But one of those "outside forces," Robert Roche of the aforementioned "People Not Mascots" organization, told FOXSportsKansasCity.com on Wednesday that adding the Chiefs to their current lawsuit has "never come up … the focus has always been on the Chief Wahoo (logo)."
The Redskins were named for Lone Star Deitz, the franchise’s coach in Boston, where it was founded as the Braves — although recent reports have surfaced that question the veracity of Deitz’s Native American heritage. The Chiefs were named, in part, for former Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, who was nicknamed "The Chief" and helped to lure the franchise north from Dallas.
But the team has veered on both sides of the political correctness highway in the 50 years since. "Warpaint," a pinto horse who was a staple of Chiefs games, had been ridden bareback by a man in feather headdress until the tradition was phased out in 1989. When the horse returned to Arrowhead in 2009, it was ridden by a Chiefs cheerleader, and the Native American iconography was toned down.
However, the team still includes a ceremonial drum as part of its pregame ceremony — even inviting celebrities to take turns beating it — while fans have come to home games dressed in American Indian headgear and face paint.
"I know one of the things I think the majority of Native Americans aren’t happy with is the guys painting their faces and acting the fool," Learned said. "And people compare that — I hear (our people) compare that to black face. That’s a pretty strong argument."
North American Indian Tennis Association (NAITA) president Yawna Allen, a professional women’s player with Quapaw, Cherokee and Euchee roots, noted that the Chiefs’ arrowhead logo was "far less offensive to many who have a problem with names and logos …. I think that a lot of people have less of an issue with that."
And yet, Allen continued, the Chiefs’ drum is "very symbolic" to Native American culture — as are feathers and face paint.
"We’re not mascots," Roche said. "We’re not caricatures. We’re not cartoon characters. We’re people."
A people with strong local ties. Learned’s center is slated for a November opening at the Loretto building in Westport. The building already houses the headquarters for NAITA and will reportedly also include the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1972 and had been based at Haskell Indian Nations University in nearby Lawrence, Kan.
"This is still new and we’re still kind of feeling our way," Learned said of the American Indian Center. "Because it takes time — it takes time to get things lined up and moving forward. But we’re excited about Kansas City; we felt it’s right there in the heart of America, it’s easy to get in and out of."
Learned said he has approached the Chiefs about working with his new center, and with the Native American community, "and I haven’t heard any response back.
"And that’s fine. It’s summer. People are probably gone (on vacation). But my plan is to work with the Chiefs and to have them in the Indian community so they could use their exposure to us to maybe help them make some good choices."
Learned suggests the Chiefs follow the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks "in the way they treat the Indian community.
"(The Blackhawks) are supportive. They’re at events. They work with the (local) center … and I envision the Chiefs being a strong partner and ally with us and (our) youth programs, supporting some of our events, and us working with them out at Arrowhead.
"That’s what my goal is. But everybody has different goals and ideas."