FedEx, which owns the naming rights of the Washington Redskins’ stadium, has asked the team to change its name — a monumental shift in the debate, with FedEx CEO Frederick Smith a member of the Redskins’ ownership group.
The stadium in Landover, Maryland, has carried the shipping company’s name as FedEx Field since November 1999. FedEx, which became the team’s sponsor with a 27-year, $200 million agreement, had not previously weighed in on the growing controversy over the name of the team, which many view as a racist slur.
“We have communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name,” FedEx said in a statement Thursday.
The development came after a coalition of investment firms and nonprofits called on FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo to cut ties with the team if it doesn’t change its nickname.
The group — comprising 87 funds, religious organizations and nonprofits promoting various causes including social justice, environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples — sent letters last week urging the three companies to pressure the Redskins to change the name. Franchise owner Dan Snyder vowed in 2013 he would never do so, and has been adamant the name is a “great tradition” and honors American Indians.
In a 2016 Washington Post poll, nine of 10 Native Americans polled said they were not offended by the name, though more recent surveys indicate that opinion has shifted dramatically.
In the letters, the investors — representing a collective $620 billion — said it’s time for the three Redskins sponsors to “meet the magnitude of the moment” amid the nationwide reckoning over racial injustices after the death of George Floyd in police custody.
FedEx’s request was received positively by the activists who have long called for a change and even by local athletes. Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal quote-tweeted the news and wrote, “Love it.”
Jordan Marie Daniel, the founder of the Raising Hearts Coalition, a group of Native American activists, said the response was “absolutely incredible” and would like to see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Mr. Snyder respond.
“I hope it leads to change,” Ms. Daniel said. “I hope it is the pressure to get Dan Snyder to fold and do the right thing to change the name, and to change the logo.”
Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the 2006 trademark case against the team’s name, called FedEx’s request “long overdue.”
“I’m hoping this is the age of people shedding their financial interest in companies that are racist,” she said, “like the Washington team. They’ve been there for a very long time and have been pressured for many, many years. Decades, even. They’ve been stubborn.
“The fact that this is happening — now is the time for people to challenge racism.”
Jonas Kron, director of shareholder advocacy for Trillium Asset Management, a Nike investor and one of the 87 groups in the coalition, said FedEx and the other Redskins partners must do more.
“For a decade, FedEx has absolutely refused to say that much, so the fact that they felt the need to say this is noteworthy, but it’s clearly not enough,” he said.
Boston-based Trillium and many others in the group, including First Peoples Worldwide, Oneida Nation Trust Enrollment Committee, LLC Boston Common Asset Management, LLC Boston Trust Walden Mercy Investment Services, and First Affirmative Financial Network, are known as “socially responsible” funds — firms that ensure their investments align with their set of moral or social values.
“The concern comes from many parts of our economy and our society. I think that’s what makes the investor letters noteworthy, is that we’re not the usual voices,” Mr. Kron said.
Nike and PepsiCo declined comment on the letters to AdWeek, which broke the story. A Redskins representative said the team had no response as of Thursday evening.
First Peoples Worldwide founder and director Carla Fredericks said there is “mounting social pressure” on organizations such as the Redskins and their corporate partners, especially as many companies are putting out statements of solidarity in the fight against racism.
“I think that the momentum is there [for a change],” Ms. Fredericks told The Times. “I would phrase it differently. I think it gives the opportunity for all involved to do the right thing and to have backing of the general population in making those decisions.”
Ms. Fredericks, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, said First Peoples Worldwide is not an investment group but plays a role in facilitating the initiative and provides indigenous leadership.
Trillium and other firms pressed FedEx to cut ties with the Redskins in 2013 and 2014, Mr. Kron said. They sent a shareholder proposal that asked the company to reconsider the business relationship with the team. The issue resurfaced with protests over Floyd’s May 25 death and larger conversations about racial equality.
“We have been seeing for a number of years, but more pointedly now, CEOs recognizing that they can’t be ‘neutral’ on these questions anymore. We saw a number of CEOs in the month of June say that ‘There is no being neutral on questions of race. We need to be anti-racist. We need to make it clear where we as a company stand.’”
Protests are putting renewed pressure on companies to become more racially sensitive. PepsiCo recently retired the Aunt Jemima syrup brand because of its depiction of a Black woman on the packaging.
Nike may have already shown its hesitance to endorse the Redskins nickname.
The apparel company was responsible for manufacturing “NFL Salute to Service” sweatshirts for coaches of all 32 teams last year. Mr. Kron pointed out that while most shirts displayed the teams’ full names, the Redskins’ said “Washington Football.” In November, a Nike spokesperson declined to comment on the matter to multiple outlets. (Nike has since introduced apparel that includes the name “Redskins.”)
Meanwhile, local and federal lawmakers in the District are digging in their heels against the idea of a new stadium for the Redskins on the site of their old home, RFK Stadium, unless the name is changed, according to The Washington Post.
The renewed push from American Indian activists and socially responsible investors is one thing, but real change won’t happen until other NFL owners are convinced that the name is hurting revenue, said Georgetown University sports and business professor Marty Conway.
“As long as it remains these kinds of episodic things and there’s not a holistic view of the owners and the NFL that gets behind it, I just don’t think it has potential for much traction,” Mr. Conway said.
But Ms. Fredericks said her aim is to promote a dialogue with the companies about the business they choose to do with the Redskins, she said.
“This isn’t a boycott strategy, from our point of view, and it’s not a divestment strategy,” Ms. Fredericks said. “Although if the companies are not willing to dialogue and not willing to engage, then I would expect that others might be concerned to the level that they would take the next step.”
Ms. Blackhorse said she wondered if other sponsors like Nike and PepsiCo would follow suit.
“We have to continue to put pressure on them because if FedEx can make this decision,” Ms. Blackhorse said, “the other ones can, too.”