The road to a new nickname, from one that has existed for 87 years for Washington’s football team, was decades in the making for some.
But for Washington owner Dan Snyder, it was almost an overnight decision.
While the battle with opponents of the franchise’s name had gone on since the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the past month and a half that the pace changed from light jog to Usain Bolt sprint.
Here’s a look at what has transpired, ending with Snyder’s monumental decision to retire the name.
May 25: George Floyd’s death
ESPN NFL reporter John Keim explains why this time the Washington franchise decided to move on from the nickname and what it might mean for other teams with Native American nicknames. Listen
Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis spurred protests, riots and a social movement in the United States and across the globe. It led to statues being toppled and taken down, Confederate flags being banned from NASCAR tracks and the Mississippi state flag being retired. The coronavirus pandemic had left the country with time to think, which resulted in louder and louder shouts for change.
And it eventually led to more pressure being applied to Washington’s franchise to change its name. Whenever the team’s Twitter account tweeted, many replies included #changethename.
June 1-5: Companies voice support for social justice movement
The fact that multiple companies, including sponsors of the team and the NFL, spoke out in support of social justice reforms became more important three weeks later. It laid the groundwork for a letter that was sent to multiple sponsors by advocacy investment groups. On June 1, Nike dropped an advertisement that played off its “Just Do It” slogan, saying, “For once, Don’t Do It” in regards to police brutality.
Four days later, Nike released another statement, which read, in part, “Systemic racism and the events that have unfolded across America over the past few weeks serve as an urgent reminder of the continued change needed in our society.”
Meanwhile, Bank of America pledged $1 billion over four years to invest in “communities of color and minority-owned businesses.” The company released a statement that read: “The events of the past week have created a sense of true urgency that has arisen across our nation, particularly in view of the racial injustices we have seen in the communities where we work and live. We all need to do more.”
When advocacy investor groups saw those words, their eyes got wide. It opened a door for an argument to separate the NFL franchise from its nickname.
Former CB Darrell Green is grateful for Dan Snyder’s decision to change Washington’s mascot and logo, and adds that he’s ready to throw away his old jerseys and helmets for new ones.
Mid-June: Advocacy groups mobilize
Jonas Kron, the senior vice president and director of shareholder advocacy for Trillium Asset Management, couldn’t recall exactly when things got started, but it was around the middle of June. That’s when 11 years of groundwork on pushing for a name change turned into overnight success.
Kron said organizers had been working on the investment community since 2009 about advocacy investing. Had they waited until now to begin discussions on this topic, he said, they would not have had success.
“If we had come to them for the first time in June, they would have had a lot of homework to do,” he said. “It would have taken time to create that education. We had over a decade of work in the investor community on this.”
Kron said companies don’t move fast until it’s necessary. Hence, 11 years of groundwork resulting in seismic change in a short period.
“My experience is companies like FedEx, Nike, Pepsi and Bank of America rarely change what they’re doing because of one thing,” Kron said. “It’s always a constellation of events that comes to bear to get a company to make those changes. The constellation had not come together — yet.
“The thing we had been warning them about was the risk to their reputation and being on the wrong side of history. We had just not made that clear enough for them and had not been persuasive enough, then eventually we were. Eventually the risk really did manifest itself.”
But during this same period, the Washington team was on a parallel track to considering change. As protests over racial injustice and police brutality reached many cities, team owner Dan Snyder initiated a dialogue with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about changing the name, according to a source. Whether he knew riding out the storm wouldn’t work as it had in the past or had a change of heart remains uncertain. Snyder hasn’t addressed his motives for the change in thinking.
Snyder also donated $250,000 for initiatives for an organizational town hall program for players and staff to discuss racism.
June 26: Letter sent to sponsors
A letter signed by 87 shareholders and investors worth a combined $620 billion was sent to three companies that are sponsors of the NFL and/or of Washington’s team: FedEx, PepsiCo and Nike. The signees asked these companies to sever ties with the team unless it changed the name. Six days later, Adweek wrote a story on this topic, at which point multiple people, some of whom know Snyder well and some who work for the team, had the same opinion: It’s over. This, said one person who used to work for the franchise, was different from other attempts to get them to change the name in the past.
Carla Fredericks, who is the director of the American Indian Law Clinic and director of First Peoples Worldwide, said that over the years she has seen how companies wake up “a little too late” and face negative consequences for shareholders. She said advocacy by institutional investors had been going on since the early 1990s. It’s a dilemma sometimes for companies: Their primary role is to make money for investors. If there are problematic issues but the company isn’t suffering financially, there’s little incentive to change. “In this case, their own statements moved the needle,” she said. “It was straightforward, that commitments on racial justice should have commitments to native people.”
Coach Ron Rivera has had direct input into Washington’s name change. Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
June 30-July 1: At first unsure, Rivera embraces change
On June 30, Washington coach Ron Rivera appeared on Chicago radio station 670 The Score and, when asked about the name, said, “That’s a discussion for another time. I feel a guy that’s my age, my era, you know, that was always part of football, the name of the Washington Redskins.”
Rivera then elaborated: “It’s all about the moment and the timing. But I’m just somebody that’s from a different era, when football wasn’t such a big part of the political scene. That’s one of the tough things for me, too, is I’ve always wanted to try to keep that separate. People have wanted me to get involved in politics while I was coaching, and I kept telling them, ‘It’s not for me to get up there and influence people.’ I have my beliefs. I know what I think. I support the movements, support the players. I believe in what they’re doing. Again, I think there are certain elements to certain things that’s all about the timing and the best time to discuss those things.”
Snyder had been talking to Goodell for nearly two weeks when he approached Rivera and asked him what he thought. They agreed now was as good a time as any to initiate a change. By then, a source said, Snyder had already made up his mind about what he wanted to do and had people looking into potential names. He just sought feedback from his new coach.
It was an awkward spot for someone who has yet to coach a game in Washington. But Snyder wanted a coach-centric approach after firing former team president Bruce Allen last season. There is no one higher than Rivera in the organization after Snyder. Part of that power now would be spent on helping pick a nickname for a franchise that has existed under its current name for 87 years. Rivera, one of four minority head coaches in the NFL, had said in the past that he loved watching former Washington Hall of Fame linebacker Chris Hanburger play. Rivera also had mentioned previously that his father served in the military with another Washington great — Hall of Fame receiver Charley Taylor. Rivera understood what the name meant to himself and many others.
Max Kellerman criticizes Dan Snyder for taking so long to change the name of his team, despite years of hearing how inappropriate it was.
July 2: FedEx statement
Although Snyder was already reviewing the name, others viewed this as a pivotal day in the fight to get it changed. FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the stadium, issued a statement saying it wanted Washington to change its name. Those who wanted the name changed — not knowing Snyder’s path — viewed this as a seismic shift.
“When FedEx came out with their statement, I knew that was the end of it,” Fredericks said.
It wasn’t just about FedEx now applying pressure on Snyder; it was also about seeing where the movement was headed and the fact that major corporations would be on board with forcing change.
“When we saw FedEx move, that was, from our point of view, that the dam was starting to break,” Kron said.
Sources said FedEx CEO Fred Smith had discussed a name change with Snyder in the past. Around six years ago, there was a proposal filed by shareholders of FedEx to vote on whether the company should continue sponsoring Washington’s stadium. Although it was voted down, it did lead to a conversation between Smith and Susan White, a former director of the Oneida Trust Enrollment Department. She died in 2018, but Kron wondered whether she had a lasting impact on Smith.
“She told him, as a Native American and as an investor, as a human being, these are my problems with the name,” Kron said. “Did that plant a seed in his head? I don’t know. But I know the conversation happened. And I know Susan was a compelling combination of a Native American woman and an investor of a very large trust. She could speak with a profound authority that very few people could.”
Kron said White was also clear about this: “Sponsors had a critical role to play in this process. That’s why we focused on them.”
July 2: Letter to Washington franchise
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According to The Washington Post, FedEx sent a letter to the team stating its intention to remove all signage starting in the 2021 season if the name wasn’t changed. FedEx CEO Smith has been a minority shareholder in the organization for 17 years (but is looking to sell), and the company had signed a 27-year, $205 million deal for naming rights that expires after the 2025 season.
One source said Snyder had not yet told Smith of his plans. Others who know Snyder well, and understand his affinity for Smith, say Smith’s words had to sting.
July 3: Washington statement
Washington set off the first round of fireworks heading into the July Fourth holiday weekend, announcing, “In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, the Washington Redskins are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name. This review formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks.”
Snyder said in 2013 that the name would never be changed, with an emphasis on never, but now it was undergoing a thorough review. Multiple sources said it was no longer was a matter of if but when.
Snyder said in the statement: “This process allows the team to take into account not only the proud tradition and history of the franchise but also input from our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League and the local community it is proud to represent on and off the field.”
This also was the first day Goodell acknowledged the talks about a name change.
“In the last few weeks we have had ongoing discussions with Dan and we are supportive of this important step,” Goodell said in a statement.
Multiple sponsors also issued their own statements. Nike and PepsiCo both stated they’d had discussions with the league about the name. PepsiCo’s statement said it had been in conversations with “the NFL and Washington management for a few weeks about this issue. We believe it is time for a change.”
Native American leaders protest against the Washington team name outside U.S. Bank Stadium before a game between Minnesota and Washington on Oct. 24, 2019. AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn
July 6: Letter to Goodell from 15 Native American movement leaders
A letter signed by 15 Native American advocates, including retired PGA golfer Notah Begay, was sent to Goodell, letting him know what the group expected from the NFL. They wrote that the NFL needed to engage in “robust, meaningful reconciliation process with Native American movement leaders, tribes and organizations to repair the decades of emotional violence and other serious harms this racist team name has caused to Native Peoples.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump tweeted: “They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct.”
In the meantime, Target, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods pulled Washington NFL merchandise and memorabilia from their shelves. Walmart tweeted that it was “discontinuing the sale of items that reference the team’s name and logo.”
Two days later, Amazon told its third-party sellers that it was removing merchandise with Washington’s name and logo.
July 12: Retiring the name
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On Sunday, there was one last group discussion about what was about to take place. Then word leaked about Monday’s announcement. Although the recent pace was quick, the news was a long time coming for some, including Native American leaders.
Snyder told USA Today in 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Now, that same man authorized a news release that arrived in inboxes at 9:03 a.m. ET Monday saying Washington would retire the name and logo.
“As you saw, things begin to happen and it got closer and closer,” former Washington running back/returner Brian Mitchell said. “I remembered when Dan [Snyder] made that comment, that he was never going to change it. I was like, ‘Ohhhh, I know how people are when you do stuff like that. Those that don’t care started caring. You made people become against you that were never against you.’
“I remember a conversation with a friend of mine that it was coming, believe me. You could see it. It was the climate for it. All I said was if anybody put pressure on the sponsors, it would happen, and we saw it happen.”