Nike Pulls Redskins Online Merchandise, Hours After FedEx Demands a Name Change

The Washington Redskins have avoided changing the team's nickname for more than 50 years of political pressure. Politicians and human rights advocacy groups could not find a way to make it happen. But in a span of a few hours on Thursday, two major corporate sponsors may have sacked the team's ability to keep moving forward with its name.

First, FedEx demanded the team change its name from Redskins. Why is that significant? FedEx holds the naming rights to the team's stadium, and the company could pull it sponsorship worth many millions of dollars if the team doesn't comply.

And on Thursday night, Nike no longer carries any Washington Redskins merchandise on its website—although all other 31 teams in the NFL are represented.

The move comes after the top three Redskins sponsors—Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo—each received a letter Wednesday signed by 87 different investors and shareholders whose total net worth is $620 billion. They all urged the companies to pull their sponsorships unless the Redskins change their nickname.

"This is a broader movement now that's happening that Indigenous peoples are part of," said Carla Fredericks, who is director of First Peoples Worldwide and director of the University of Colorado Law School's American Indian Law Clinic. "Indigenous peoples were sort of left out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s in many respects, because our conditions were so dire on reservations and our ability to engage publicly was very limited because of that. With social media now, obviously everything is very different."

FedEx made its move on Thursday afternoon, insisting the team change its name. The Memphis-based company made it clear with just one sentence.

"We have communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name," FedEx said in a statement .

Then, in a particularly-quiet move, Nike removed all Washington Redskins merchandise from its website. The Redskins are not listed among the other NFL teams, nor are they listed after a search on the site.

Washington Redskins Nike
A Washington Redskins Nike cleat and helmet is seen on the field before the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 21, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Native American groups in the late 1960s began efforts to end any harmful stereotypes or images of Native American life, especially in the sports world. By the early 1970s, there became a growing plea from activists for the Redskins to drop their name, or change its mascot altogether.

Although requests for sports teams to change their mascots from Indians and similar names somewhat dissipated throughout the 1980s, it began picking up steam again following the 1991 season, when the Redskins advanced to the Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis.

About 3,000 demonstrators showed up at the game to protest the Redskins name—the largest such protest at the time. Later that year, a Native American group filed a petition to have the team's nickname removed from trademark.

A federal appeals board sided with the petitioners, but the Redskins appealed the ruling. The board ruled that the team's name was belittling to Native Americans.

In 2004, a poll of 768 self-identified Indians showed that only nine percent of them were offended by Washington's nickname, and it's a survey that owner Daniel Snyder has used to this day as a way to defend the Redskins organization and brand.

Since then, and even before then, many colleges and universities have dropped or changed nicknames. Miami University in Ohio changed its named from Redskins to Redhawks.

Lawsuits have continuously been filed against the Washington Redskins, but the organization has never wavered. Snyder even said in 2013 that he would never change the team's name.

After the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in custody of police, protests against his death—and police brutality against Blacks, in general—swept the nation. There have also been protests for equality of all races, including Native Americans.

In the letter from the investors to Nike, it stated, "the use of the R-word as the name and mascot of the Washington National Football League team is offensive and hurtful to American Indian and Alaska Native people and causes direct, harmful effects on the physical and mental health and academic achievement of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations, particularly youth; and ... despite the team's arguments to the contrary, the R-word is not a term of honor or respect, but rather, a term that still connotes racism and genocide for Native peoples and for all others who know of this history and recognize that it is wrong to characterize people by the color of their skin."