Behind the scenes of the investor push to change Washington's football team name

The Washington Football Team announced on July 13 that it was retiring its former name and logo. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

DANIEL SNYDER ENDURED decades of protests, lawsuits and emotional appeals over the nickname of his Washington NFL team. "We'll never change the name," he told USA Today in 2013. "It's that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps."

Then, in a blinding rush this summer, the name long criticized by Native Americans and others was gone.

But the change didn't feel sudden to the coalition of Native American groups that started working long ago to force Snyder's hand by investing in the corporations that pay hundreds of millions of dollars for sponsorship deals.

Ultimately, their effort included more than 85 groups, including racial justice, environmental protection and religious organizations with $620 billion in assets that activists said helped tip the scales.

"Although we see the players on the field every Sunday, what really is behind the scenes of the game is the corporate sponsorships of the team and the merchandising," said Carla Fredericks, director of First Peoples Worldwide, an indigenous advocacy group.

Roots of the effort go back decades. In 1993, when the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin opened a casino 10 minutes west of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, tribal leaders decided to invest some of the casino's profits in the stock market. They had started investing 20 years earlier after getting settlement money from the federal government, but the casino funds allowed them to flex their financial muscles.

The Oneida Trust was the first Native group in the U.S. to adopt now-common "socially responsible impact investing," said Keith Doxtator, who helps manage the tribe's investment portfolio. "We avoid bad companies that have bad practices, like oil companies that are hurting the environment," he said.

But the trust's former director, Susan White, also pushed to invest in companies with policies the tribe opposed. "Susan's approach was to find an opportunity for change," Doxtator said. "Let's become a tiny minority owner in a company so we can have some say on how we would like to have the company run."

White, who died in 2018, spent some of her childhood in Norfolk, Virginia -- Washington football country -- and was "disgusted" by the team's former nickname, according to her husband, Linny. Within her own Oneida community, she pushed to change the names of recreational teams. "One of the baseball team names was the Chiefs," Linny said. "She said we can't be fighting the bigger issue when we're doing it on the reservation. They eliminated the team name."

In 1999, the shipping company FedEx purchased the naming rights to the Washington team's stadium for $205 million over 27 years. FedEx CEO Fred Smith became a minority owner of the team in 2003.

Even though she didn't like what FedEx was doing, White invested some of Oneida's money in FedEx stock, as did a small group of allies, including Steven Heim with Boston Common Asset Management. The goal, Heim said, was to build some sway as shareholders.

The group wrote an investor letter to Smith in 2009, telling the CEO it was "troubled by FedEx's high-profile promotion" of an NFL team that "uses a name that is a racial slur." The group asked to meet with Smith to "discuss ways to align FedEx's sports sponsorships with your commitment to promoting a more diverse and respectful workplace and society."

When White's group circulated the letter to other shareholders, they found a powerful ally. Sister Valerie Heinonen had been attending FedEx shareholder meetings to protest labor practices and spent decades fighting racism through shareholder proposals at other companies, according to Pat Zerega, senior director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, which manages money for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and other religious orders.

In her work for Mercy as the director of shareholder advocacy, Heinonen often partnered with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of more than 300 institutional investors -- including churches and religious organizations -- with more than $500 billion in managed assets. ICCR formed in 1971, when some of its members bought stock in General Motors to attempt to pressure the company into withdrawing from apartheid South Africa.

So when White's group circulated its investor letter to FedEx, "it was a no-brainer," Zerega said. Heinonen quickly signed on, bringing both power and money from the Catholic church and ICCR to the cause.

WHILE WASHINGTON'S FOOTBALL team fought protests and lawsuits regarding its name, White, Heinonen and their like-minded investors waged another, less-publicized fight in FedEx's annual shareholder meetings.

Under U.S. law, anyone owning more than either $2,000 or 1% of a company's stock for at least a year can submit a shareholder proposal, often a recommendation for how that company should change its behavior. Such proposals are voted on by the company's stockholders every year.

Some years, White's group submitted formal written proposals. Other years they stood up at the meetings and spoke out about why they thought the company's sponsorship with the team was risky for investors.

Year after year, the company took no action, but the little group didn't lose faith. They were recruiting others to their cause, such as Carla Fredericks of First Peoples Worldwide.

In 2013, a few months after Snyder's comments to USA Today, FedEx agreed to let White present her case to Smith in what she thought would be a "one-on-one" meeting. But when White arrived, Smith was surrounded by his lawyers. "All the questions she would try to ask him were directed to the lawyer," according to White's husband.

Linny White said his wife returned home profoundly disappointed but also somewhat hopeful. "Smith was more open to listening to the issue but felt like he had his hands tied," he said.

FedEx declined ESPN's request to interview Smith about his interactions with White and the company's sponsorship of the team. The Washington team also declined to comment for this story.

In the years following White's meeting with Smith, "companies have gotten more involved in cultural debates in the United States," said Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer at Trillium Asset Management, which assists the Oneida Nation with its investments. Investors took note of potential threats, like product boycotts, he said. With that in mind, White and her group purchased stock with more of the team's sponsors, including PepsiCo and Nike.

Ten years after White's group started, it began to feel the pendulum swing in November 2019, when Nike made commemorative Veterans Day hoodies featuring all NFL teams' nicknames -- except Washington's, Kron said. "The sweatshirts said 'Eagles' or 'Chargers.' But they didn't do that for Washington."

Nike didn't respond to questions about why it didn't put the team's name on its Veterans Day sweatshirts. But Kron said the move gave the group hope. "We started to see these little things that they were doing that suggested something deeper could happen."

SEVEN MONTHS LATER, on May 25, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Floyd's death prompted worldwide protests demanding racial justice. Companies found themselves facing criticism if they didn't publicly support the movement. Within days, FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo, among hundreds of others, declared their support for diversity and inclusion.

But for Doxtator, director of the Oneida Trust, the statements simply highlighted the inconsistency in the companies' message. "Knowing that they're also the sponsor of the racial slur name, it made me just pause and consider the hypocrisy of it," he said.

Other powerful voices were also struck by the inconsistency. When the team tweeted a black box in support of Black Lives Matter on June 2, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted back, "Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name."

"The focus was on Black lives as it should be," Kron said. "But we saw interest in talking about Native American lives as well."

The investor group crafted new investor letters to FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo, indicating the companies' statements supporting Black Lives Matter conflicted with their financial support of the Washington team. "FedEx is facilitating the perpetuation of this racist logo and name by sponsoring the team stadium," the investors wrote. "In doing so, FedEx is associating its brand with a symbol of hate and prejudice."

They posted the letters to several group email lists, asking other investment groups for their support. By June 26, the group had sent off the letters that now included 85 signatures representing large asset management firms, racial justice groups, environmental advocates and a long list of religious groups including Unitarians, Episcopalians, Quakers and Catholic nuns from nearly two dozen religious orders.

On July 2, FedEx sent its own letter to the team that stated it was hopeful a name change "will help move public perception in a positive direction, restore the team's reputation and lessen our deep concerns."

Just a few hours later, Nike pulled its merchandise featuring the team name and mascot from its website. PepsiCo followed, issuing its own statement urging the team to change its name. And much to the surprise of the core group of investors, other companies they had never approached, including Amazon, Target and Dick's Sporting Goods, also pulled the team's merchandise from their sites.

"I think for all of them to kind of fall in sort of a domino type fashion was very powerful," Fredericks said.

Shareholder pressure wasn't the only force in play around the Washington team. District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, for example, said in June that it would be difficult for the team to build a new stadium on government property unless it changed the name. And in July, the Washington Post reported that three minority owners of the Washington team, who together own 40%, were seeking to sell their stakes because they were "not happy being a partner" with Snyder. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on July 3 that the league had been in communication with Snyder about changing the team name and was "supportive of this important step."

"What finally carried the day was this moment around the tragic death of George Floyd," Fredericks said. "I feel very saddened that things had to get to the point that they did to make this type of change possible. So it does feel like a bittersweet moment, where there are families and individuals that have really paid the price for this watershed moment around social justice."

WHEN THE WASHINGTON Football Team, as it is called for now, takes the field this year, Snyder will be in a place he promised never to be. No mascot. No real name. No imagery except for big gold numbers on burgundy helmets.

The team announced that it would "review" the old name on July 3. But when rumors arose that Snyder might name the team the "Warriors" to keep the old mascot and related imagery, more than 1,500 tribal groups and other organizations added their name to a new letter sent to Goodell several days later "to make it very clear that any type of Native imagery or a name that suggested a connection to Native people would not be acceptable," Fredericks said.

On July 13, the team announced it would "retire" both the name and mascot. But the burgundy and gold remains, and that worries Doxtator. "The fear of keeping the colors," he said, "would be that a lot of the fans that have their old clothing and merchandise will fill the stadium with the old name and merchandise. And if that continues, next up is the old practices and chants and the culture-mocking continues."

So the "long and tough" fight, as Fredericks calls it, continues. But it will be missing some of its leading voices. Heinonen, who retired from Mercy Investment Services in 2019, is in failing health, Zerega said.

"It's painful to know it took this long," Fredericks said. "I've seen friends of mine who led this movement pass away."

That includes Susan White, who died from cancer two years ago. "She was young and strong and healthy and active," said Linny White. "That's the way with cancer. She was 55 when she died."

Two years after he buried her, Linny White made a special trip. "I went to the gravesite to tell her about it. I talked to her and let her know all the hard work had paid off and they were finally going to change the name of the team. She would have been filled with joy knowing it has changed. But she was always kind of sassy with me. So, I know she would say, 'I told you so.'"

ESPN's John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.