The National Congress of American Indians, a relentless force in advocating for the Washington Redskins to change its name, has targeted a new stakeholder in their fight: FedEx CEO Frederick Smith.
NCAI wrote a letter, set to arrive Wednesday, to Smith, asking for his help in getting the team to drop its name. Smith is a partial owner of the NFL team, and FedEx currently owns the naming rights of FedEx Field where the Redskins play. By targeting Smith, the NCAI is expanding its efforts beyond the National Football League franchise to now include the team’s corporate sponsors.
“At FedEx Field, your company is allowing its iconic brand to be used as a platform to promote the R-word — a racist epithet that was screamed at Native Americans as they were dragged at gunpoint off their lands,” NCAI writes in its letter, which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports. “FedEx’s brand is being leveraged to promote some of the most divisive messages ever conceived — the messages of segregation and hate.”
Last week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office stripped the Redskins of its trademark ruling its use of the term is “disparaging to Native Americans” and therefore violates federal law which does not grant protections for offensive language. Though taking away the team’s trademarks does not mean the Redskins must change their name, and in fact, the trademarks won’t officially be cancelled until after the franchise has the chance to appeal the decision, which it has full intentions of doing. In 1999 when the team was previously stripped of its patents, the entire appeal process took a decade.
By switching tactics, the NCAI is bypassing a team that refuses to budge to appeal to its corporate sponsors who have the financial means to make it. But it’s not yet clear whether the new tactic will be successful. When asked by CNBC following last week’s decision if the team should drop Redskins, Smith distanced himself from the team and the issue.
“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,” Smith said. “So that’s our sponsorship, and we really don’t have any dog in this issue from a standpoint of FedEx.”
Still, the NCAI’s effort isn’t unwarranted. Sponsorship pressure has been proven to work. When the American Legislative Exchange Council saw its sponsors drop off thanks to its voter suppression legislation, for example, it dropped the committee that worked on those type of bills. And when former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist comments earlier this year, almost all of the NBA team’s corporate sponsors, including State Farm, Sprint and Red Bull, dropped the team, and nationwide outcry forced the NBA to suspend Sterling from the league for life.
Following Sterling’s ban, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested the NFL follow its lead and told the league to “remove this hateful term from your league’s vocabulary and rid the league of racism and bigotry.” President Obama and 50 U.S. Senators have repeated Reid’s sentiment, but despite the growing controversy, 4 in 5 Americans don’t think the Redskins should have to change its name.
Shannon Greenwood is an intern at ThinkProgress.