WASHINGTON – FedEx became the first major corporate backer of the Washington Redskins to call on the team to change its name Thursday, the most significant development yet amid mounting financial and political pressure on team owner Daniel Snyder in the long-running controversy.
In a one-sentence statement issued Thursday afternoon, Memphis-based FedEx said: “We have communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name.”
Even without elaboration from the company, the statement signals a dramatic pivot by one of Washington’s more loyal, long-standing corporate backers – a Fortune 100 company that for more than two decades has tied its brand with that of the team.
FedEx’s request that the team change its name comes less than one week after a group of 88 investment firms and shareholders representing $620 billion in assets called on it, Nike, and Pepsi – Fortune 100 companies that do business with the team – to sever ties with the team unless Snyder changes its name.
And it represents another shift in a battle in which the terrain has shifted from moral appeals to business and political tactics during a period when the country is re-examining statues, monuments, symbols and corporate names and logos that some Americans have never questioned but to others have long been a source of offense, insult or pain.
If prominent Washington sponsors feel sufficient pressure to dissociate from the team, Snyder’s bottom line would take a significant hit at the same time he faces political roadblocks in building a new stadium.
FedEx, which ranks 47th on the 2020 Fortune 500 list, holds the naming rights to the team’s existing stadium in Landover, Md., through 2026 under a $205 million, 27-year deal signed in November 1999. Moreover, the company’s CEO, Frederick Smith, is a minority investor in the team, who is believed to have a 10-percent share.
The sponsors’ investors – whose assets are represented by 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 – are not threatening to boycott or divest from the companies. Rather, their move represents a campaign to work from within those companies to pressure their respective CEOs to put pressure on Snyder. FedEx’s statement Thursday is the first public result.
The investors are motivated by several factors, explained Carla Fredericks, director of First Peoples Worldwide and director of the University of Colorado Law School’s American Indian Law Clinic.
The shareholders see the name as a racial slur, and they feel Nike, FedEx and Pepsi have obligations to honor their stated corporate values of inclusion and diversity. Thus, they believe the value of their investments will suffer if the companies continue supporting an NFL team that doesn’t reflect those values. In other words, they are demanding the companies “walk the talk” of their stated values as they relate to the Washington team’s name.
Jonas Kron, senior vice president of Trillium Assets Managements, a leader in the socially responsible investing movement, pointed to Nike’s public support of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose activism on issues of racial and social justice issues it celebrated through a major ad campaign.
“Nike made a very clear choice to support Colin Kaepernick and his protest,” Kron said in a telephone interview, “and angered a lot of people in doing that. But they decided, ‘This is where our market is, and this is the position we want to take as a company because of the values we stand for as a company.'”
In their letter to Nike CEO and President John Donahoe, the shareholders highlighted the contradiction in outfitting Washington’s NFL team and producing and selling “apparel with the team’s racist name and logo.”
The letter stated: “This association with and facilitation of the racism inherent in the name and logo runs contrary to the very sentiments expressed by the company.”
The shareholders’ action, expressed in letters sent to the three companies last week, is one more example of an increasingly unfriendly business climate for Snyder, who has owned the Washington team since 1999 and has said that he will never change the name that he insists honors Native Americans and is a proud part of the franchise’s heritage.
In the view of Fredericks, it’s widely accepted, historical fact that the name is a racial slur that originally referred to the bounty on the scalps of Native Americans. Whether the majority of Native Americans agree, she said, is immaterial.
“That’s irrelevant to the investors’ push in the context of the larger social movement on racial justice,” Fredericks said.
The Redskins name has a source of controversy for decades. Opponents traditionally have appealed to Snyder to change the name for moral reasons. These latest efforts are aimed at convincing him that he must change the name to keep his NFL franchise solvent.
On Wednesday, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives; District Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio; and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee said in separate telephone interviews with The Washington Post that Snyder has no hope of building the team’s next stadium on the federally owned RFK campus unless and until he drops the name.
Snyder’s profit margin is already suffering. The team’s chronic poor performance has cost him dearly in unsold seats, a dwindling season-ticket base and difficulty selling luxury suites.
FedEx Field, which opened in 1997, is an increasing liability, as well. Fan surveys give it consistently poor marks for the game-day experience. It is poorly served by public transportation. And home-field advantage for NFC East games has all but disappeared, with Eagles and Cowboys fans buying up heavily discounted tickets to cheer their teams.