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Most Sponsors Sit Out Controversy Over Redskins Name

USA Today, June 20, 2014

By Josh Peter

A day after the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled the Washington Redskins' nickname is disparaging to Native Americans, the team's corporate sponsors largely remained on the sidelines.

Harris Teeter, a grocery store chain with stores primarily in the South, said in a statement that it "trusts that whatever decision Mr. Snyder makes about the name of his organization will be the right decision for the greater community and his team.​"​

FedEx, the company whose name is most closely tied to the Redskins because it owns the stadium's naming rights — the team plays at FedEx Field — distanced themselves from the legal proceedings rather than the team's use of the nickname.

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Bank of America and Coca-Cola were among the major sponsors that did not respond to requests for comment from USA TODAY Sports.

The response stands in contrast to what followed after NBA owner Donald Sterling's derogatory comments about African-Americans became public two months ago, when sponsors moved swiftly to distance themselves from Sterling by suspending or ending their relationship with the Los Angeles Clippers.

"The difference is the issue around the Redskins' name has been an issue for some time," said Jim Andrews, a vice president for sponsorship consulting firm IEG. "It's just kind of slowly built over that time as opposed to the Sterling case, where out of the blue he was on tape making very specific derogatory statements.

"I think public opinion about whether the name Redskins is a racial slur has slowly evolved. Probably if you went back 10, 20 years it was a much smaller opinion that felt that way. Now, over time, that number has significantly grown.

"So without that tipping point like you had in the Clippers case, I think the sponsors have just said let's see which way the wind blows, and when it starts really changing direction will be the time when we will have to take some course of action."

Jed Pearsall, president of sponsorship consulting firm Performance Research, said it's easier for corporations to ignore the outcry of Native Americans, who comprise only 2% of the U.S. population, than the outrage of African-Americans — the group directly targeted by Sterling's remarks — who are about 12% of the U.S. population.

"It's easier to look the other way with Native Americans because we don't have so much contact and they have a very small voice," Pearsall said.

But those outside the Native American community on Thursday tried to apply pressure against the Redskins' corporate sponsors. A group of investors filed a shareholder proposal with FedEx asking for the company to "respond to reputational damage from its association" with the team.

"The name is disparaging to Native Americans and we feel not only should the Washington NFL team recognize that, but so should sponsors," said Reed Montague, sustainability analyst at Calvert Investments in Bethesda, Md., among those involved in the shareholder proposal. "A high percentage, something like 80% or 85%, of Fortune 500 companies, now produce a sustainability report where they talk about their environmental governance and social issues and what they are doing to address them.

"So for FedEx, due to its owning naming rights of the stadium, we think that makes it an important issue for the company."

FedEx spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald said the company had no comment about the proposal, but added, "FedEx Field sponsorship is beneficial to our company's shareholders, team members and the local community."

Controversy over Sterling's racially-charged remarks and the Redskins' nickname are just the latest issues to test corporate sponsors. Another was Russia's adherence to anti-gay policies during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. AT&T and Chobani Yogurt were among the few companies to denounce those policies.

"Usually the safest route is to say we don't take part in political issues, which is kind of hiding behind the curtain a little bit," Pearsall said. "Sponsors don't like it when these things happen. It's supposed to be that kind of marketing that is easygoing and politics free."

Corporate sponsors usually take their cue from their consumers, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. And although 50 U.S. senators sent letters to the NFL castigating the use of Redskins and Native American leaders have intensified their demands for the name to be dropped, two national polls in 2013 reported that more than 70% of Americans don't think the team should change its name.

"The corporate support of a team is as much a reflection of public perception as it is the corporation's own feeling about the issue," Swangard said.

But the relative silence among corporate sponsors on Wednesday may be misleading, according to Swangard.

"It would be naive to think that they're not monitoring this situation closely and just waiting to see what the general reaction is," he said.

Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist from New York involved in the study and treatment of adults with psychological, health and interpersonal issues for over 20 years, suggested waiting is harmful — if not to the corporate sponsors, to Native Americans.

"The use of a government-defined racial slur is harmful to Native American adults and children, which is verified by social science, and sponsors need to think about that," Friedman said. "I think it is time for corporations to step up and do things that benefit not only their shareholders, but all of the stakeholders in our communities."

Richard Lapchick, director of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, said most corporations, motivated by the ability to market to the entire population, have adopted policies supporting diversity and inclusion that eventually will force them off the sidelines.

"I think what ultimately affects this is beyond the moral argument of this being offensive to Native Americans and other people — it's offensive to me — that it's going to affect the bottom line of the team as well as the league," he said. "I think that's where the push is really going to come."