Entertainment

Nike Pulls Redskins Merch as Pressure Mounts for Team to Change Its Name

Investors are urging FedEx, Nike, and PepsiCo to cut ties with the Washington NFL team unless it changes its racist name.
July 8, 2020, 11:10am
Washington Redskins hat
Photo: Getty Images

During a special meeting on Thursday evening, the Forest Hills (Ohio) school board voted in favor of changing the mascot at Anderson High School. The Cincinnati-area school had used the 'Redskins' name for its sports teams for more than 80 years but, following the board's 4-1 decision, it will be phased out in stages during the 2020-21 school year.

"I want my principal to stand up in a gym and put his hand up, or her hand up, and say, 'Go whatever!' and all the kids are behind it," Board president Forest Heis told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

An increasing number of investors and shareholders have made a similar request to the Washington Redskins, suggesting that the time has come to drop that name and the still-offensive logo on the side of the NFL team's helmets. As first reported by AdWeek, 87 investment firms and shareholders have sent three separate letters to FedEx, Nike, and PepsiCo, urging them to end their business relationships with the Washington franchise, unless it changes its name.

'Redskins' remains a dehumanizing word characterising people by skin color and a racial slur with hateful connotations," the letter sent to Nike read. "Virtually every major national American Indian organization has denounced use of Indian and Native related images, names, and symbols, with over 2,000 academic institutions eliminating 'Indian' sports references. We need to remember that the franchise name is not just a word, it is a symbol that loudly and clearly signals that Native Americans are not worthy of respect."

Nike seems to have read the letter—or at least paid attention to the part that said "the undersigned 87 investors [represent] over $620 billion in assets." The sportswear giant has yet to issue a statement, but Pro Football Talk noticed that, by Thursday night, Nike had pulled all of the Washington franchise's merch from its website, and the team's logo was not included in the dropdown list with the other NFL teams, and a search for "Washington" on the site just returns a handful of Nationals-branded shirts. (Walmart, Target, and Dick's Sporting Goods have also removed the Washington merch from their respective websites.)

FedEx has also released a statement, writing that it had "communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name." That's a big one, since FedEx has owned the naming rights for the team's stadium since 1999, a $205 million deal that continues through 2026. FedEx CEO Frederick Smith is also a minority investor in the team.

The biggest obstacle to the name change is team owner Daniel Snyder, who has heard the criticism for years—even from the National Congress of American Indians—and has responded by basically putting his fingers in his ears. In a 2013 interview with USA Today, he was adamant that the team would always use that R-word. "We'll never change the name," he said. "It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps."

A year later, he flat-out denied that the term was a slur. "I'd like them to understand, as I think most do, that the name really means honor, respect," he insisted. "We sing 'Hail to the Redskins.' We don't say hurt anybody. We say 'Hail to the Redskins. Braves on the warpath. Fight for old D.C.'" (The National Congress of American Indians strongly disagrees, calling it "a pejorative and insulting term" that "perpetuates inaccurate and harmful stereotypes about American Indian and Alaska Native peoples.")

In mid-June, a monument to the team's founder George Preston Marshall was vandalized with graffiti that read 'Change the Name,' and it was ultimately removed from its location outside RFK Stadium, the team's former home. The Marshall monument had long been a source of controversy, due to his unwavering beliefs in racial segregation, and his refusal to voluntarily integrate the team. "We'll start signing Negroes, when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites," he famously (or infamously) said.

It took a literal government intervention to convince Marshall to allow a Black player to join his team. In 1962, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall told Marshall that Washington would not be allowed to use RFK Stadium, which was on federal land, unless he drafted or traded for a Black athlete. (Fullback Ron Hatcher, selected in the eighth round of that year's draft, became the first Black player to sign a contract with the team, but he was cut during the preseason. Future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, along with Leroy Jackson and John Nisby, were the first Black players to take the field for Washington during the regular season.)

“This symbol of a person who didn’t believe all men and women were created equal and who actually worked against integration is counter to all that we as people, a city and nation represent,” the company that currently manages RFK Stadium said after removing the monument to Marshall. "Removing this statue is a small and an overdue step on the road to lasting equality and justice.” (Another monument to Marshall has since been pulled from the Ring of Fame outside FedEx Field, and the team has also quietly deleted any reference to him from its website.)

The team released a statement on Friday to announce that it would "undergo a thorough review" of the team's name, while Snyder added that it would be seeking input from "our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League, and the local community." Strangely, he doesn't specify that the team will consult with those whose opinions about the name are the most important: namely Native Americans themselves.

On Monday, 15 Native American leaders and advocates sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, making their thoughts clear. The group has asked the league "to engage in a robust, meaningful reconciliation process with Native American movement leaders, tribes, and organizations to repair the decades of emotional violence and other serious harms this racist team name has caused to Native Peoples.”

The team's current Twitter bio reads "new szn. new vibe. new rivERA," a reference to new head coach Ron Rivera. If they're truly listening, they'll add "new name" to that list, too.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.