As we all know, the way to a rich man’s heart is through his wallet — or possibly his penis, but mostly his wallet. So it appears the only way we’ll get “Redskins” owner Dan Synder to change his team’s name is to hit him where it hurts — in the dick and/or wallet.
That’s where the team’s corporate sponsors come in. When Donald Sterling’s racist comments (or, should we say, most recent racist comments) were released, sponsors dropped or suspended their partnership with the team quickly, putting added pressure on the franchise and the league to oust him. Sterling’s past words and deeds hadn’t interfered with the NBA’s business — but once he became a known monetary liability, he was gone.
How do the Washington NFL team’s sponsors feel about offending Native Americans, who make up less than two percent of the U.S. population (people who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone are just 0.9 percent)? Most — like Coca-Cola and Bank of America — are sitting this controversy out. It’s easier to refuse to take a stand on an issue when the bottom-line won’t be greatly affected either way.
One major sponsor has finally made its collective feelings about the name public, via a motion at an annual shareholder’s meeting. Via Bloomberg:
FedEx Corp. (FDX) shareholders rejected a proposal from the Oneida Indian tribe to “drop or distance” its ties to the Washington Redskins, including sponsorship of the team’s stadium.
The motion involving the National Football League was presented from the floor of the shipping company’s annual shareholder meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, today after FedEx won the right from federal regulators to omit it from its proxy materials. The Redskins have been under pressure to change their name from a group of Native Americans who argue it’s offensive.
The vote wasn’t even close, with 228.6 million shares against the proposal to change the name and 203,521 shares for it. Though FedEx would neither confirm nor deny whether this vote was for a binding proposal, the author of the Bloomberg article told SportsGrid that this “wasn’t a non-binding proposal.”
Regardless, this wasn’t a case of FedEx’s executive board, led by CEO Fred Smith, turning down the proposal out of hand. Many people, worth millions of dollars to the company, did not support the idea of dropping the sponsorship.
But what’s the company line? Patrick Fitzgerald, FedEx Senior Vice President, Marketing and Communications, released this statement after the vote:
“We highly value our sponsorship of FedExField, which is home to a variety of major entertainment and sports events and multiple community activities. We are proud FedExField is a venue that is used by a wide range of community groups.”
A fine, vague quote that says nothing definitive one way or the other, except that it seems to downplay the relationship between the company and the team, focusing instead on community activities. But what are these activities? On the “Redskins” website, the only thing on the upcoming calendar that isn’t a “Redskins” game is a college football game between Navy and Notre Dame. There were some soccer games over the summer. When I reached out to FedEx, they gave me a list of the following things that have taken place at FedExField over the past three years:
-A veterans job fair (2014)
-A pet adoptions event (2013)
-A food bank (2012)
-A backpack collection for homeless children (2012)
-A variety of “Redskins”-sponsored or otherwise attended charity events, such as Redskins Read (2013) and Play 60, the NFL’s fitness awareness program (2013)
Let’s put it this way: FedExField is no Madison Square Garden, which hosts a different event almost every night. It’s more like Yankee Stadium — technically, the Stadium hosts things like Manchester City games and bar mitzvahs, but no one thinks of it for those purposes. It’s a stadium that was built to host the Yankees; FedExField was built primarily to host the local NFL team. That means FedEx and the “Redskins” are inextricably linked here, not FedEx and a stadium in Hanover.
But FedEx and the “Redskins” were already linked: Fred Smith — FedEx’s CEO, president and founder — is part of the team’s ownership group as well. When he was asked for his personal stance on the “Redskins” name on CNBC over the summer, his response likely laid the groundwork for Fitzgerald’s recent statement: “We have a long-standing contract with Washington Football Inc. 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.”
Awkward mixer of metaphors aside, Smith was recently cited by Fortune as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. As a businessman, he appears to be living up to that name: From a football team ownership standpoint as well as a multi-billion-dollar international corporation ownership standpoint, Smith has little reason to want to rock the boat. And FedEx shareholders seem to agree with him. But considering Smith’s close personal times to the team, it’s hard not to notice that he’s taking a backseat here when the time has clearly come to take action.
Sponsors can put as much distance between themselves and the name as they want, but until they cut ties altogether, they are complicit in continuing the usage of a slur for a football team. They might not have to stand up and defend it for themselves like Dan Synder does, but their implicit support should not go unnoticed.
Photo via Getty