There’s a story you’ve probably seen on social media. Maybe you even shared it. It goes like this: The Washington NFL team will likely change its name because big money weighed in, FedEx, Nike, Walmart. So it wasn’t the moral argument. It wasn’t the litigation. And it wasn’t even the voices of tribal leaders, activists and others who have been working on this issue for decades.
That story is wrong.
Suzan Harjo, Hodulgee Muscogee and Cheyenne, and many others who have been leading the fight against the Washington NFL franchise set out a strategy decades ago that included pressuring investors and business partners of the team. Last week, 88 investors representing over $620 billion in assets sent letters to Nike, FedEx and Pepsi that urged those companies to terminate their business and public relationships with the Washington team.
The letter to Ramon Laguarta, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Inc., is an example.
“Many of us have raised this issue with Pepsi for years to little avail,” wrote the investors. “But in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that [has] focused the world’s attention on centuries of systemic racism, we are witnessing a fresh outpouring of opposition to the team name. Therefore, it is time for Pepsi to meet the magnitude of this moment, to make their opposition to the racist team name clear, and to take tangible and meaningful steps to exert pressure on the team to cease using it.”
Last week, the landscape had shifted. As the publication Adweek put it: “Institutional investors are concerned about brands’ actions that go against their stated commitments on diversity and inclusion.” Thus, there is no logical path for a Nike Company to run a campaign supporting Colin Kaeperneck and yet support the Washington franchise. A second point made by Adweek said: “History has shown there’s a risk for companies that don’t pay attention to social pressure.”
“The campaign with FedEx has been going on for more than a decade now,” said Carla Fredericks, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, and the director of the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Law School as well as director of First Peoples Worldwide at the university.
“Folks who have been at the center of the larger campaign have always been part of the dialogue with FedEx, including Suzan Harjo. We have been pressing corporate sponsors of the Washington team for a long time, especially when it became clear that other avenues might not be successful.”
This was a complicated process. Susan White, Oneida of Wisconsin, was then director of the Oneida Trust. She pressed FedEx for a resolution to shareholders to force that company into action starting in 2014.
“We are the only race of people dehumanized by an NFL team,” she told shareholders at a September 2015 meeting. “For six years the Oneida and co-filers have been talking with FedEx about the controversy surrounding the name of the Washington DC NFL franchise and FedEx’s association through its naming rights on the team’s stadium. I have been here before with this message and similar requests. The controversy has been mainstream, but I understand this is new information for many of this audience.”
The company did not disclose the results of the vote, but later released a statement to Sports Illustrated. “We highly value our sponsorship of FedExField, which not only hosts the Washington [team], but is home to a variety of major entertainment and sports events and multiple community activities,” wrote Patrick Fitzgerald, FedEx senior vice president for marketing and communications.
FedEx at one point said “although the appropriateness of the team's name is an important matter to the parties to this debate, it simply does not rise to the level of a significant social policy issue.”
Fredericks said White, the Mashantucket Pequot Endowment Trust and faith-based institutions and then asset managers kept at it, agitating for social change.
“The FedEx engagement was the longest and the most arduous in many respects because they really, at every step of the way, fought us,” said Fredericks.
White spoke to the shareholders in 2018, shortly before her death, and Fredericks said it was a powerful moment.
Then, like now, there was a moment that changed everything, Standing Rock. The media images from Standing Rock captured the imagination of people around the world, and the investment community was paying attention.
Fredericks said there was a lot of institutional support that was building because of the Dakota Access Pipeline situation. “That pipeline was financed by a consortium of 17 banks … and it created a lot of risk exposure for the bank, not only in the project itself, but also with our customers.”
Investors and banks were learning how important it was to measure the costs of social impacts as a business cost. There was a total of $12 billion that was a cost because the banks had not accounted for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (the United Nations standard for development). “It's a values proposition as well as a monetary proposition for the company.”
A paper Fredericks co-authored (Social Costs and Material Loss: The Dakota Access Pipeline) showed how to quantify that risk. And that “investors’ missed opportunities to understand the developing social risks that subsequently manifested into intense social conflict and ultimately resulted in material loss.”
In other words: It can be expensive for a company to get it wrong about the cost of conflict.
Now, she said, the challenge is to hold companies accountable for their own words.
“If you're going to make statements about racial justice equity, then you mustn't forget that those statements include your treatment of Indigenous people and your relationships with the Washington football team, and its dehumanizing logo and mascot,” Fredericks said.
She describes this moment as tipping the boulder off the cliff. “It was really a case of being ready to engage in that way at the right time. And, yeah ... I was as surprised as anybody at the outcomes of the last couple of days.”
Now what for Washington’s team?
There have been concerns raised that Washington owner Dan Snyder will try and do just enough to continue operations without making substantive changes. But that’s where the metric again plays out.
“It can’t be the way it’s been before,” Fredericks said. There will have to be Native leadership consulted about what the next step looks like. “We’re going to keep pushing on that.”
“I'm hearing that the name change is imminent, so we're encouraged by that. I'm also hearing it could happen as soon as the start of the season, which is pretty soon,” she said. “I'm also hearing that there's still the possibility of some sort of so-called honorific Native connection to the name … so there's a lot left to do here.”
And it’s not just Washington’s problematic name. Change has to include the logo and even the team colors. And, how will the team regulate the behavior of fans who refuse? (The University of North Dakota’s hockey team is an example of that because fans often refuse to sport the school’s new logo — Fighting Hawks — and continue to chant offensive refrains from the past.)
“That's the type of thing that can become really insidious and harmful to Native people.,” she said. “There really has to be a complete pivot.”
Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee, is the former president of First Peoples Worldwide. She has worked on social impact investing for decades, said this moment is an example of Indigenous leadership.
“We've got all kinds of power,” she said, to tap into the markets to make change behind the scenes. “We’re absolutely driving the market on this.”
She added: To Susan White and Suzan Harjo, “this is your moment.”
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports
Indian Country Today LLC, is a nonprofit, public media enterprise. Reader support is critical. We do not charge for subscriptions and tribal media (or any media, for that matter) can use our content for free. Our goal is public service. Please join our cause and support independent journalism today.