Why Won't the New York Times Say 'Chiefs'?
State of the Union: The Times has avoided using the words “Braves,” “Chiefs,” and “Blackhawks” in its coverage of Native-themed teams.
For years, progressive sports reporters called the Washington Redskins the "team from Washington," or, more often, "Washington." They did the same thing to the Cleveland Indians, calling the team "Cleveland" or "the Cleveland baseball team." The pressure campaign worked, as both teams changed their names amid the wave of iconoclasm after George Floyd's death.
Activists hoped the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and Chicago Blackhawks would follow suit. Thus far, they haven't budged, but the New York Times has joined the effort to pressure the teams to do so.
Two years ago, when the Atlanta Braves played in the World Series against the Houston Astros, the New York Times twisted itself in knots to avoid using the word "Braves." While it used the word in headlines and occasionally sprinkled it in pieces, the Times's writers called the team "Atlanta" so often that it became clear they were deliberately avoiding the word "Braves." Consider this paragraph, reproduced with my emphasis:
Valdez, who left a 2-0 slider up and over the plate, failed to regain his balance as Atlanta poured it on from there. Every Atlanta batter collected at least one hit by evening’s end. By the end of the third inning, Atlanta had scored five times, Valdez had been chased and the Astros were well on their way toward losing their fifth consecutive home World Series game.
The first reference to Houston in the body of the piece was as "the Astros"; the Braves were referred to as "Atlanta" seventeen times and the "Braves" only once, in the antepenultimate paragraph.
The following year, in the body of a write-up of the 2022 National League Divisional Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, a Times writer called Philadelphia the "Phillies" fourteen times and Atlanta the "Braves" just three. In multiple paragraphs, he called Philadelphia the "Phillies" and the Braves "Atlanta," such as this one, again reproduced with my emphasis:
Matt Olson, the Atlanta first baseman, narrowed the margin to two runs in the fourth when he homered to right. But the Phillies used a series of singles to add three runs of their own in the sixth before Travis d’Arnaud, Atlanta’s catcher, hit a solo home run to lead off the seventh.
The Times's aversion to Native-themed team names extends even to the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks. While the word "Blackhawks" features elsewhere in the Times's reporting, in some pieces, "Chicago" is clearly preferred. In 2021, months after the Times ran a piece arguing the Blackhawks should change their name, a subheading in one of its reported pieces about the Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild read as follows, with my emphasis:
The first-year goaltender Kevin Lankinen has helped Chicago to playoff position, and the Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov is leading all rookies in scoring.
This construction—referring to the Native-themed team by its city and the non-Native-themed team by its name—appears in the Times's reporting on the Braves, Blackhawks, and Kansas City Chiefs. On Sunday, in its coverage of Super Bowl LVII between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Times included several of these constructions, practically avoiding naming the winning team at all.
In its Super Bowl feature, author Emmanuel Morgan mentioned the "Chiefs" twice in the body of the piece and referred to them as "Kansas City" thirteen times. The Philadelphia Eagles, by contrast, were called the "Eagles" fifteen times. Morgan included several paragraphs that called Philadelphia the "Eagles" and the Chiefs "Kansas City," such as:
Kansas City punted on the drive, leading to an Eagles field goal that extended their lead to 24-14.
With just over one minute left in the first half and Kansas City trailing by 21-14, Mahomes scrambled outside the pocket but Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards tackled him by his right ankle.
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The Times's reporters were clearly straining to avoid calling Kansas City by its team name. A Times reporting fellow, in a live blog during the game, referred to the Chiefs as "Kansas City" four times in three sentences, sandwiched between references to the "Eagles." Reproduced with my emphasis:
Two plays after a 65-yard punt return by Kadarius Toney that put Kansas City’s offense on the Eagles’ 5-yard-line, Patrick Mahomes found receiver Skyy Moore wide open on third down for a touchdown to give Kansas City a 35-27 lead. Just minutes before, Kansas City had scored with Toney in a similar fashion on an Eagles breakdown in coverage. Kansas City has scored 14 unanswered points, turning this game around completely.
I asked the Times sports desk if they have a policy about using Native-themed nicknames. They did not respond to my request, but their reporting is answer enough.