Last week, over 87 investment firms and shareholders worth a collective $620 billion sent letters asking Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo to end their financial arrangements with the NFL’s Washington Redskins based on the team’s racist name. As calls for boycotts grow, will the team’s owner finally do what’s right?
The Washington professional football franchise has been named the Redskins since it moved to from Boston to Washington, D.C. in 1937. But in recent decades, the team’s name, which is seen by many as a racist slur against Native Americans, has been subject to an ongoing, and often heated, debate. Despite the pressure, Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner since 1999, has resisted calls to change the name. In fact, in 2013 he told USA Today he never planned to make a change.
“We’ll never change the name,” he told USA TODAY. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Yet much has changed since 2013, and even since the conclusion of most recent NFL season. As the league weathered its own crisis related to how it responded to player protests that were first sparked by Colin Kaepernick, the newest attention to the Redskins’ racist name will likely only put more pressure on the team, and the league, to make a change.
Indeed, pressure to do so has been coming from all quarters. Last Friday, Fawn Sharp, the President of the National Congress of American Indians, sent a powerful message to Redskins team owners and supporters.
“The racial slur can no longer be removed by the complicit, indifferent, tone-deaf ownership of the franchise, because the stain they have fixed onto their own name and enterprises is now permanent” Sharp wrote. “It’s time for the players to rip down that name like it was a statue of a Confederate general in their locker room.”
Calls for a change to the popular sports team’s name are also growing among influential voices within the NFL. Hall of Fame head coach and analyst on NBC’s Football Night in America, Tony Dungy, also has spoken out about the offensive name. In a conversation with William C. Rhoden of The Undefeated, Dungy said, “If the team doesn’t want to change, the least I can do is try not to use it. He continued, “It’s not hard to change the name. When I’m on the air, I try to just refer to them as Washington. I think it’s appropriate.”
But it might be the threat of economic pain that ultimately forces the team’s hand. By sending letters to Fedex, Nike and PepsiCo, First Peoples Worldwide, Oneida Nation Trust Enrollment Committee, Trillium Asset Management, LLC Boston Common Asset Management, LLC Boston Trust Walden Mercy Investment Services, and First Affirmative Financial Network, raised the stakes even higher. Refereeing the calls to change the Redskins name to something less culturally offensive, the advocates aligned the movement with the discussions about structural racism that are engaging every aspect of the nation’s politics and culture.
“This is a broader movement now that’s happening that Indigenous peoples are part of,” Carla Fredericks, director of First Peoples Worldwide, told Adweek. “Indigenous peoples were sort of left out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s in many respects, because our conditions were so dire on reservations and our ability to engage publicly was very limited because of that. With social media now, obviously everything is very different.”
By putting pressure on the team’s sponsors and suppliers, advocates of a name change are also being explicit in how big businesses are propagating the racist stereotype represented by the name. For example, in the letter to Nike, the apparel provider for the Redskins, the advocates were unambiguous.
“Nike continues to provide uniforms and equipment to the Washington D.C. NFL football team which bears the logo and name,” the letter said. “Further, it produces and sells thousands of jerseys and other apparel with the team’s racist name and logo. This association with and facilitation of the racism inherent in the name and logo runs contrary to the very sentiments expressed by the company.”
At a time when companies are being pressured by employees, consumers, and other stakeholders to reexamine how they contribute to racist stereotypes in American culture, sports teams have a special responsibility to make sure they are responsive to the calls for diversity and inclusion. For far too long, the Redskins organization and its ownership has avoided calls for it to change the name that is offensive not only to Native Americans, but to everyone who rejects racist slurs of all types.
Despite questions of when and how professional football will resume play this fall, one thing is certain. When it does return, there shouldn’t be a team named the Redskins taking the field. As Fawn Sharp wrote last week with a reference to Nike’s famous tagline: “When it comes to doing the right thing, there can be only one motto… Just do it.”