Washington Redskins Urged to Lose Name, or Millions in Sponsorships

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said in 2013 he would never change his franchise's nickname despite its harsh rhetoric aimed at Native Americans. Now a group of investors and shareholders collectively worth more than half a trillion dollars have asked some of the team's top investors to terminate their sponsorships unless the name is changed.

The top Redskins sponsors are Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo, according to a report by AdWeek. Each company received a letter signed by 87 different investors and shareholder—whose total net worth is $620 billion—urging them 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."

The movement is nothing new to the franchise deeply engrained in National Football League history.

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.

Washington Redskins
A general view of the helmets of the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles after the game at the Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Redskins defeated the Eagles, 17-14. Photo by Doug Pensinger /Allsport/Getty

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.

Colleges and universities mostly changed their nicknames and mascots, however, because the NCAA announced in 2005 that it would ban all teams from postseason play if they had "hostile or abusive" mascot names. Though the Florida State Seminoles remain, other teams around the country eventually changed. For example, the Arkansas State University Indians became the Red Wolves—among many who changed nicknames.

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."

Although the letter acknowledged Nike's efforts in supporting protests against systemic racism, it also notes that Nike still sells merchandise with the Redskins name and logo.