The Washington Redskins will likely spend the next year or more appealing a recent ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revoking the team’s trademarks on the grounds that they are disparaging to Native Americans. But while the team fights it out in the courtroom, the next stage of the battle may we waged in the boardroom.
It seems unlikely, given the First Amendment, that any federal legal authority will ever be able to truly force the Washington Redskins to change their name to something that isn’t racially offensive to Native Americans. But legal coercion isn’t the only kind of coercion, and team owner Dan Snyder’s vow that the team will “never” change its name might not hold up if it becomes a financial burden rather than just a political one.
Activists who have been unable to get the team to bend to moral pressure are now trying to turn up the financial pressure, and their prime target is shipping giant Federal Express. The Redskins play on FedEx Field outside of Washington, and the company pays the team millions of dollars a year for the naming rights to the high-visibility venue.
Earlier this year, a group of investors filed a request with FedEx to respond to their concerns about the “reputational damage” done to the company by its continued association with the team. After last week’s USPTO ruling, activists redoubled their pressure, asking that the company address the issue at the annual shareholders meeting in September.
FedEx has officially tried to keep out of the dispute, with a spokesperson telling the Associated Press “It’s not our place to have a position on the name.”
However, it’s a little bit difficult for the company to profess complete neutrality when its CEO, Fred Smith, is also part of the Redskins management group.
In an interview with CNBC last week, Smith tried to create some distance between the company and the team, claiming that the sponsorship of the stadium is about more than the Redskins.
“We have a long-standing contract with Washington Football Inc.,” he said. “The Redskins play at FedEx Field, but there are many, many other events there: the Rolling Stones, Notre Dame, Army and Navy football, Kenny Chesney. So that’s our sponsorship, and we really don’t have any dog in this issue from a standpoint of FedEx. From a personal standpoint, I’m a shareowner in the Redskins football team, but Mr. Snyder — who’s the majority owner — and the Redskins speak for the franchise.”
Asked for his personal opinion on whether the name should be changed, Smith said it was “Gonna remain personal.” He added, “I think that FedEx’s contract is with Washington Football for the stadium. And I’m here representing 300,000 FedEx team members and FedEx shareholders. So our sponsorship is a good one for FedEx Field, and the Redskins need to speak on the Redskins name.”
How long a strategy of silence will work for FedEx, though, is unclear, but the issue of the team’s name, which has long simmered quietly on the back burner of public opinion, is now getting a lot of high-visibility attention.
On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) regularly castigates Snyder, and 50 senators recently signed a letter supporting a name change.
Columnist Michael Tomasky wrote in The Daily Beast last week, “[S]uppose enough pressure could be placed on the corporation that by next fall, or the next, it is willing to say: We no longer wish to be associated with this team. The company will say that if it is made to feel that its association with the team is bad for business. Into the bargain, FedEx would save itself—and cost the Redskins—something on the order of $75 million over a decade. FedEx is public. It has stockholders. Like pension funds and universities. You follow?
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