Kansas City Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt fielded questions during an interview following the news conference announcing the hiring of head coach Andy Reid, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. David Eulitt deulitt@kcstar.com
Kansas City Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt fielded questions during an interview following the news conference announcing the hiring of head coach Andy Reid, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. David Eulitt deulitt@kcstar.com

Sam Mellinger

Chiefs’ Clark Hunt responds to Donald Trump, whiffs badly on an opportunity to lead

By Sam Mellinger

smellinger@kcstar.com

September 24, 2017 3:26 PM

CARSON, Calif.

Clark Hunt is a billionaire born to a billionaire, a man in charge of a historically underachieving sports franchise that is nonetheless a foolproof business, so maybe it’s unfair to expect substance when it comes to speaking on anything other than ways to ensure revenues exceed expenditures.

But the leader of Kansas City’s second-most iconic institution (behind barbecue) missed a chance to lead.

Preventative self-preservation from a man with no reason to fear for his preservation is a bad look.

President Donald Trump directly insulted Hunt’s family business, and Hunt responded with the electronic statement version of the guy who’s challenged to a fight and jumps into his friends’ arms, screaming, “HOLD ME BACK! HOLD ME BACK!”

The Chiefs’ chairman heard Trump trash the NFL, and trash NFL players, calling those who kneel during the national anthem “sons of bitches.” Hunt saw commissioner Roger Goodell respond directly, if softly, calling Trump’s comments “divisive.”

More NFL players sit, take a knee following Trump criticism

During President Donald Trump's speech at a rally in Huntsville, Ala. on Sept. 22, 2017, he said any player that sits during the national anthem is a "son of a bitch." The president also rescinded NBA champ Stephen Curry's invitation to the White House. Trump's comments ultimately led to more protests by NFL players, coaches and owners during the national anthem on Sept. 24, 2017.

Alexa Ard / McClatchy

Hunt saw a steady flow of statements from others across the league, including Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who said he was “deeply disappointed” in the president he’s long supported. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan locked arms with his players during the anthem on Sunday. Khan was a major donor to Trump.

Hunt’s delay in speaking — more than half the league’s owners beat him to it — was consistent with his deliberate nature. But the time spent drafting a statement with help from confidants did little to ensure a clear or even strong message.

Statement from Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt. pic.twitter.com/DdMruLebOj

— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) September 24, 2017

He supported players as a group: “...through their thoughtfulness and generosity, are deeply engaged in their communities.”

He referenced his previously stated opinion that all should stand: “I believe in honoring the American flag...”

And he (sort of) supported players’ right to protest: “...the many freedoms we have in this country, including the right to have differences of opinion.”

But President Trump’s words demanded a strong response, one way or the other, and Hunt brought a rubber mallet to a job that requires a sledgehammer.

Browns owners referenced “misguided, uninformed and divisive comments from the President.” 49ers owner Jed York said “the callous and offensive comments made by the president are contradictory to what this great country stands for.”

American flag fills Arrowhead Stadium field for National Anthem

First responders held a field-sized American flag for the playing of the National Anthem before the start of the Kansas City Chiefs home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.

John Sleezer The Kansas City Star

Hunt couldn’t bring himself to reference the president indirectly, or even offer obvious support of players who speak out.

His statement referenced his belief that standing for the anthem is respect for military sacrifice but failed to acknowledge that kneeling players have stated they are protesting racial inequality.

Hunt took too long drafting a statement that did not even acknowledge what’s being talked about.

It was sad, really. In many real ways, Hunt was born and raised for this job of operating an NFL team. His father founded the AFL, and led many sports in America — not just football — forward with innovation, humility and a natural instinct about what people would pay for.

Hunt saw and knows that side of his father as well as anyone, but also came up in a different time, with a 21st century businessman’s sense of strategic thinking as the NFL’s scope of business has skyrocketed.

But everything in life is a trade-off, and Hunt being raised to one day run his dad’s business meant he missed a lot of real life. He has great business sense but not as much street sense.

This was his chance to break out of his lifelong programming to speak in the blandest terms possible, and he failed to see the opportunity.

Hunt knows enough to know many players heard the president’s words as an insult to all of them.

These are proud men who’ve dedicated their lives to working their way up the food chain in a brutal sport, and an owner with a better feel would’ve seen a chance — no, felt an obligation — to stand up for his business and his players.

Perhaps worst of all, he whiffed on all of this while watering down both his desire for players to stand and his acceptance of their protests. A leader should know you don’t solve issues by pretending differences don’t exist. You solve issues by listening, with empathy, and finding respect and common ground.

This one should’ve been easy.

Hunt could’ve answered the president’s insults directly, expressed unwavering support for the men who’ve played for the Chiefs and done so much for Kansas City. He could’ve talked clearly about why it’s important for him to stand, and just as clearly about why he respects peaceful protests.

He could’ve talked about meeting with players regularly and directly, so that he could better understand their motives and they could better understand his perspective. He could’ve framed this an an opportunity for each side.

Instead, he offered 124 words of corporately edited gobbledygook that failed to even address why the statement was made. The motive seemed to be checking off the box while offending the least amount of people by offering the least amount of substance possible.

Alex Smith alarmed by Trump 'targeting the quality and character' of NFL players

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith criticized President Donald Trump for his tweets and comments about the character of NFL players for peacefully protesting during the National Anthem.

David Eulitt The Kansas City Star

But none of that is the saddest part.

Hunt is one of the league’s most respected owners, a real force in solving the 2011 lockout. He is decades younger than many of the league’s most influential leaders, and firmly entrenched in NFL matters, particularly those most connected to the league’s future.

A man like that should’ve had a better feel than this. He should’ve been able to express more conviction in his own beliefs, more pride in his league and more support for his players.

It wasn’t that hard. More than half the league beat him to it, and he still whiffed.

Some Chiefs players participate in protest before game against Chargers

Some players sat out the national anthem before the Chiefs-Chargers game in Carson, California.

Blair Kerkhoff The Kansas City Star

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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