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FedEx ramps up pressure on NFL’s Washington Redskins to finally change team name

July 2, 2020, 11:46 PM UTC

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The National Football League’s Washington Redskins are facing renewed pressure over their racist team name. And this time, it’s coming from Wall Street.

On Friday, FedEx—the delivery and freight giant that has sponsored the NFL franchise’s home field for more than 20 years—said that it has “communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name,” according to a statement obtained by ESPN

The move comes after FedEx, as well as fellow team sponsors Nike and PepsiCo, received letters from shareholders demanding they cut ties with the organization unless it changes its name, Adweek reported Thursday. The three companies are said to have each heard from nearly 90 different investment firms and shareholders worth a combined $620 billion, who are calling on them to end their relationship with the team so long as it is nicknamed after a Native American racial pejorative.

The Redskins organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

FedEx has owned the naming rights to the franchise’s Landover, Md., stadium since 1998, under a $205 million deal that runs through 2025, according to ESPN. FedEx founder, chairman, and CEO Frederick Smith also owns a minority stake in the team.

The reignited controversy is the latest chapter in a decades-long saga over the Redskins name, which has been used since 1933 and is again in the spotlight in the wake of social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd. For years, team owner Daniel Snyder has been steadfast in his refusal to budge on the matter, once telling USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”

Yet in a cultural moment that has seen statues of racist American luminaries taken down and the state of Mississippi finally remove Confederate imagery from its flag, it’s clear that tolerance for the archaic views and symbols still featured in American society is hitting an all-time low. Corporate America has proven no exception, as PepsiCo has witnessed firsthand; the company’s Quaker Oats subsidiary announced last month that it would be renaming and changing the logo of its Aunt Jemima breakfast brand.

Washington’s NFL team has budged to the pressure somewhat, having removed the name of founder George Preston Marshall from the “Ring of Fame” at its stadium, FedEx Field. Marshall was a vocal segregationist and under his ownership, the franchise was the last NFL team to integrate Black players into their roster, in 1962.

But not even multiple, high-profile court cases in which opponents sought to cancel the franchise’s trademarks—arguing that they violated federal laws prohibiting the trademarking of “disparaging” terms and symbols—have been able to divorce the team from its racist nickname and logo.

This time, however, things feel “different,” as one former team employee told ESPN this week. The intolerance for racist symbols and signifiers has even forced NASCAR—as culturally tied to the southern United States as any professional sports enterprise—to ban Confederate flags from its tracks.

More importantly, the current backlash threatens Snyder and his franchise where it hurts the most: their bottom line. Time and again, Snyder has proven himself one of the more profit-driven owners in league awash with them; he once infamously charged fans for parking and admission to the team’s preseason training camp, one in a series of price-gouging tactics that have characterized his more than two decades at the organization’s helm.

Snyder’s steadfastness on the matter is already costing him a chance to return the team to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to build a new state-of-the-art stadium on the site of its former RFK Stadium. That site is located on federally-owned land, and government officials reiterated this week that there is “no viable path” for Washington’s NFL team to return to the city without changing its name first.

Yet it’s unlikely any argument will be as convincing to Snyder and his organization as the one now being made by FedEx—and potentially other sponsors facing pressure from their own investors. If corporate America really is beholden to the interests of its shareholders above all else, then it may well be capitalism that ends up accomplishing what no socially-driven interest group could: succeed in getting the Redskins to give up that old, racist nickname.