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Editorial: Lessons from the Washington NFL name change

Editorial: Lessons from the Washington NFL name change

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Did a left-wing mob pushing “political correctness” just force Washington’s National Football League team into changing the name it had used since 1933?

Let’s play sportscaster and take a look at the instant replay to break down what happened.

There’s the Washington football franchise — let picture the team as the quarterback, standing its ground in the pocket. And coming in to sack the “Redskins” name are . . .

FedEx — which in early July sent the team a letter saying if the name wasn’t changed, then FedEx would pull its name from the stadium where Washington plays.

And over here are three more Fortune 500 companies rushing in, saying they would no longer sell the team’s merchandise — Nike, Target and Walmart. And, wait, there’s Dick’s Sporting Goods doing the same thing.

And, look, here’s another Fortune 500 company blitzing in from another direction, saying it would remove all merchandise with the offensive name and logo from its website — Amazon.

And over there are Pepsi and the Bank of America— yes, two more Fortune 500 companies, and, like FedEx, Fortune 500 companies that are team sponsors — asking for a name change.

The conclusion seems easy: Washington wasn’t forced to change its name by the people who have been protesting the name for years now. It was forced to change by some of America’s corporate titans, which is another way of saying it wasn’t forced to change by left-wing political correctness but by something usually championed by conservatives — the free market.

This is one of the oldest stories around: Money talks.

If FedEx had carried through its threat to pull its name from the stadium, that would have cost the franchise $45 million in naming-rights revenue. Meanwhile, Navigate Research, a Chicago marketing firm that specializes in sports, estimates about 10% of each team’s revenue comes from merchandise. Now, to be fair, these companies did not suddenly have their own Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment about the name. They, too, felt pressure — from their investors.

Adweek reports that “87 investment firms and shareholders worth a collective $620 billion asked Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to terminate their business relationships with the NFL’s Washington Redskins unless the team agrees to change its controversial name.”

What’s the lesson here? It seems pretty clear: The world is changing. And it changed a little bit more —maybe a lot more — after a Black man died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, but on video shared worldwide, in late May. The Washington Post reports that “a handful of self-described ‘socially responsible’ money management firms have been pressing FedEx since 2009 to distance itself from the Redskins because of the team name. They wrote shareholder proposals and made a fuss at annual meetings. They got nowhere until last month. Then, seeing that the protests were prompting big companies to speak out against racism, six of the firms drafted a letter calling on FedEx, Nike and Pepsi to take a public stand against the team’s name. They asked other investment managers to sign on as well.” This time, they did. On June 26, the 87 firms sent their letter to FedEx, Nike and Pepsi. Less than a week later, FedEx told the team to drop its name or the shipper was out.

Why would these companies be so eager to distance themselves from the team name? They’re certainly not run by leftists. FedEx chairman Fred Smith — who owns a minority share of the team — is well-known as a donor to Republican candidates. Fortune magazine reports that he gave money in 2012 to Mitt Romney and in 2016 to Republican contenders John Kasich and Jeb Bush. The Street — a website that covers Wall Street — pushed Smith as a running mate for President Trump in 2016. Smith has had some critical things to say about Trump since — he disagrees sharply with Trump over trade policy as you might expect of someone who runs a company that ships packages overseas — but Smith is not a guy who will ever be mistaken for, say, a member of Antifa. Yet here he just helped pull down an offensive name and logo that’s stood longer on the national stage than the Robert E. Lee monument has stood across from the Roanoke Municipal Building. (And it’s coming down, too, just in a more lawful way than some of the statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue). Why would he do that?

You either have to believe that all these corporate chieftains are sniveling cowards who can’t take a little heat —or perhaps they understand a changing America better than many of our politicians. Here’s why the answer is the latter: Politicians — even the ones who style themselves as unifiers — know they really only need a certain slice of the electorate to win. Companies, though, want to sell their products and services to as many people as possible — which means they must stay attuned to shifts in the marketplace. And right now the nation behind that marketplace is changing. Smart companies know this, and are adapting — even if some of our politicians aren’t.

The Washington team name is one of the more dramatic changes but it’s hardly the only one. Two years ago even Dolly Parton changed the name of her tourist attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee from “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede” to simply “Dolly Parton’s Stampede.” The official rationale: Business. Parton said in a statement at the time: “We also recognize that attitudes change and feel that by streamlining the names of our shows, it will remove any confusion or concerns about our shows and will help our efforts to expand into new cities.” Likewise, Quaker Oats probably wouldn’t be dropping the Aunt Jemima brand unless it thought by keeping the name it would lose market share.

In the case of Washington’s football team, all the companies involved felt that public opinion had shifted enough that there was some monetary risk to being associated with the a team name that many consider a slur.

Even as it became clear that the Washington team was going to make a change, President Trump tweeted a defense of the name. Trump, though, doesn’t need to sell himself to all Americans.

He won in 2016 with just 46.1% of the vote; to win in 2020, he once again needs only a plurality in the right configuration of states, not an absolute majority. What Trump derided as “political correctness” is, in this case, more like “market correctness.”

To understand how America is changing —demographically, culturally — perhaps politicians aren’t who we should be looking to for guidance.

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