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Of Mascots and Men

I became a Kansas City Chiefs fan on April 20, 1993, when Joe Montana was traded from the San Francisco 49ers four days after my twelfth birthday. At the time I was listening to Billy Joel on my Sony Walkman, riding my blue Trek 820 to school each day, playing Betrayal at Krondor on my parents' Gateway PC, and occasionally clerking at their bookstore on small town main street after school. Later in life, I would move to Omaha where I teach today, a city close enough to KC to allow me to catch about a game a year at Arrowhead. At the time, however, I lived in Valentine, Nebraska, which was closer to Denver (many of my friends were Broncos fans) and only nine miles from the Rosebud Reservation.

During my childhood, our geographical proximity to the rez did a lot to dispel any racist notions I might otherwise have harbored about First Nations people, though it did not seem to prevent many of my elementary school teachers from engaging in bizarre, ritualistic cultural appropriation every year around Thanksgiving. Never, however, did it occur to me that perhaps “Chiefs” and “Arrowhead Stadium” and our beloved “Tomahawk Chop” were somehow problematic. When my middle school sports team, the Valentine Badgers, played teams from the reservation, they had names like the “Winner Warriors” and the “Todd County Falcons”. My familiarity with the culture helped me to think nothing of mascots, though in retrospect the locker room talk about “getting scalped” often got far out of line.

Later in my life, teaching English in Lincoln, Nebraska, a friend of mine who had survived the Holocaust mentioned to me over dinner how offensive he found a local private school’s mascot. They were – and still are to my knowledge – the Crusaders. Young and idealistic, I arranged to meet with the principal of the school. Over the course of an hour, I laid out what I felt was an extremely compelling case for rebranding. He listened politely from behind his desk, occasionally even nodding in agreement. When I had finished, he politely informed me that no rebrand was going to take place – because it was an expensive undertaking and the alumni didn’t support it. Despite doing most of the talking, I learned a lot that day.

This spring, however, the zeitgeist which has been intensified by a combination of pandemic and racial injustice is heavily charged and ripe for change.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, our national tolerance for the racist status quo seems to have waned. The prophetic teachings of Ibram X Kendi that there is no such thing as not racist; there is racist and there is antiracist, aligns seamlessly with the teaching of the late Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” The realities of America in 2020 have forced many well-intentioned fence-sitters to reconsider their approaches and begin actively engaging in the fight against racism.

Antiracism in America in 2020 has manifest itself in many ways, but what surprised me most was that it found its way into sports so quickly.

Sure, it’s pretty on brand for the NBA, easily the most woke and antiracist sports organization in the world, to allow players to write “Equality” and “Education Reform” and “How Many More” on the backs of their jerseys. It’s far more surprising that the NFL, a league characterized by its white owners, white executives, white coaches, and mostly black players, seems also to be shifting. Remember, this is the league that blackballed a rising star, Colin Kaepernick, for engaging in the same peaceful protest that Muhammad Ali did forty years before him. So when it was announced that Washington’s football team decided to drop their racial slur of a name, I was frankly shocked. We’d been saying this needed to happen for years, but to no avail. Why now?

The answer is probably more complicated than I even know, but what I do know is that all of this seems to have been ignited in Minneapolis. There isn’t a kid in my classes this fall who doesn’t know the name of George Floyd, and for the first time I see Black Lives Matter posters not only in the Black neighborhoods of my community, but in the country clubs and suburbs as well. The rallies and peaceful protests advocating for change are still going on. And if we need evidence that perhaps this time things really are different, well, I think we can look at the Washington football team, the nation-wide movement of antiracism, the response in Minneapolis, and the nomination of the first Black woman Vice Presidential candidate collectively as a signal that maybe, just maybe, if we keep fighting, things will keep changing.  Momentum is on our side.

There are all kinds of things that need to change, especially in the world of education, if we are to achieve equity and antiracism in our systems. Standardized testing is a racist practice, segregation still exists, the rich continue to have better-funded schools, textbooks are packed with narratives that either gloss over or grossly misrepresent the historical record, and the list goes on. But as I think about sport, it occurs to me that an important precedent was just set in the NFL, and that the time is now to eliminate racist high school mascots once and for all, thus taking one more important step toward creating inclusive schools in which all of our children can be safe and respected. There are no shortage of racist mascots in high schools across the United States. According to an LA Times article from just last month, there are still 423 high schools in the United States using “Indians” as their mascot, while 210 use “Warriors”, 71 use “Chiefs”, and 53 use “Redskins”.

As a long-time coach in Nebraska, I have coached the Spartans, the Aardvarks, the Prairie Wolves, the Stars, the Bolts, and I currently coach the Vikings. However, my home state is packed with less innocuous mascots than these, including seven “Indians” (many on tribal land), three “Chiefs” or “Chieftains”, twelve “Warriors”, three “Crusaders” and, akin to so many states across the nation, the Columbus “Discoverers” – arguably less racist than it is misleading and inaccurate, but in equal need of a rebrand all the same.

No matter what you call them, the Kansas City and Washington football teams may or may not have the opportunity to play their sport this fall. Whether they do or not, the air is abuzz with the potential for change, and I think teachers can play an important role in that.

I urge all of my colleagues who teach at schools with mascots that are offensive or appropriate the culture of our fellow human beings to do what we do best, and to educate those who will join us in pursuing change.

  1. Educate your students. This is what we do anyway, right? Why not make it hit close to home? Students love talking about “controversial” topics, and if you present them with inarguable facts (rather than emotional rhetoric and accusations), there’s a good chance the conversations they’ll have around the dinner table at home will spawn a heightened level of awareness throughout your community.
  2. Educate your community. In addition to those within the immediate circle of influence of your students, raising awareness to the broader community – in particular alumni and groups that advocate for the school, can be important. When we let the broader community believe that “Well, nobody really cares about that,” we let go of the opportunity to create change. When we show them that we care, we invite them to care with us.
  3. Educate your school board and other stakeholders. So often, as was the case with myself at one point, people don’t initially see the problem, or else try to downplay it in their minds. Helping your elected officials and those in charge see the issue through well-worded letters, petitions, and personal dialogue is likely to help them consider the issue in ways they hadn’t before, and will hopefully prompt action.

On August 20, my Kansas City Chiefs issued a statement announcing that they were banning the use of cultural appropriation in several forms, including the wearing of headdresses to games and face paint “styled in a way that references or appropriates American Indian cultures and traditions” and that they were “reviewing” the Arrowhead Chop as well as the use of drumbeats. The plan falls short of perfection, but the progress is undeniable and as a fan I harbor hopes that the momentum may be maintained.  For years, I had attempted to assuage my guilt. “It’s not like they’re the Cleveland Indians with that awful Chief Wahoo,” I’d say unconvincingly to myself each Sunday prior to kickoff before forcing the thought from my mind for the umpteenth time. While I still hope we’ll sign Kaep this offseason to backup Patrick Mahommes, I can be a prouder Chiefs fan now – until such a time as the team may be renamed, knowing that there is change in the air and that the moral arc of the universe continues to bend toward justice – even in the realm of sports.

~*~

Epilogue:

I sent this essay off to my editor shortly after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23, 2020. He was shot in the back seven times. In the hours and days that followed, the sports world responded forcefully, first with words of condemnation, and then with decisive, pointed action. First the Milwaukee Bucks effectively went on strike, refusing to play their playoff game. "Basketball doesn't matter right now” was a sentiment shared by players and coaches across the league.  Then the rest of the NBA quickly followed suit by postponing – possibly cancelling, games. The NBA bubble was ultimately broken not by the coronavirus, but by an even more ugly and lethal sickness: racism.

MLB soon followed suit in cancelling games, led by the Milwaukee Brewers. Then the WNBA cancelled their games. Then MLS. The sports world is still responding to the shooting of Jacob Blake, as usual led by the NBA, and while the athletes passionately advocate for an end to the systemic violence toward Black people in America, I want to end this essay by pointing out that the use of human beings as mascots, in particular in youth sports, contributes to the cultural racism that enables systemic and direct violence in our communities by making overt racism an everyday part of sports.  The connection between the tragic stories of Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the use of racist images and symbols by rich white men on national television for decades on end is very real indeed.  No human being is a mascot. Instead, as the jersey of Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley states with a phrase borrowed from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, a strike against racism and inequitable treatment of Black workers, “I am a man.”


This fall marks the seventeenth year in the classroom for Dr. Mark Gudgel, a public servant who has devoted his life to teaching in public secondary schools. Gudgel is entering his seventh year teaching English, Humanities and World Religions at Omaha North High Magnet School.  He was a finalist for Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2020. Recently, he traded Saints RB Alvin Kamara for Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes in his fantasy football league.

A Fulbright Scholar and fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Imperial War Museum, Gudgel has devoted much of his career to teaching about social justice, civil rights, and genocide. Gudgel co-founded the Educators Institute for Human Rights with his friend and colleague, Drew Beiter, and served as the organization’s Executive Director until 2015.  Gudgel’s third book, Think Higher; Feel Deeper: Effectively nuancing the Holocaust in secondary classrooms, is scheduled for publication in 2021.  When he’s not teaching, Gudgel is an avid runner, coaches cross country and track, and writes poetry and essays. He lives in Omaha with his wife, Sonja, and their children, Titus and Zooey.





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