WASHINGTON — The company most associated with the Washington Redskins is keeping its distance from the debate over the team’s name in the aftermath of a trademark ruling that found the name to be “disparaging” to Native Americans.
FedEx has its name on the Redskins’ stadium, and its president, Fred Smith, is a member of the team’s ownership group. But both a senior official and Smith are remaining neutral on owner Dan Snyder’s efforts to keep the name in the face of unprecedented opposition.
“It’s not our place to have a position on the name,” Patrick Fitzgerald, FedEx’s senior vice president for marketing, said Thursday.
Fitzgerald consistently referred to the Redskins as “the Washington NFL team” during an interview and did not use the nickname, but he said that was not a reflection of company policy. Smith did call the team the “Redskins” during an interview with CNBC, but he pointed out that FedEx Field hosts more than just the NFL team’s games.
“We have a longstanding relationship with Washington Football Inc. (the Redskins’ parent company). The Redskins play at FedEx Field,” Smith told CNBC. “But there are many, many other events there: the Rolling Stones, Notre Dame, and Army and Navy football, Kenny Chesney. That’s our sponsorship — and we really don’t have any dog in this issue from the standpoint of FedEx.”
Smith also said his personal feelings about the name will “remain personal” and that Snyder should speak on behalf of the team.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled Wednesday that the Redskins name is disparaging to Native Americans and that the team should be stripped of federal trademark protection. The team plans to appeal and the case could take years to resolve, but the decision gives more momentum to an anti-“Redskins” movement that has drawn in political, religious and sports figures in addition to Native Americans.
FedEx has been facing pressure from shareholders to end its association with the team. The Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, which owns FedEx shares, filed a proposal supported by five companies in April asking FedEx to “respond to reputational damage from its association” with the team. The tribe is separate from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which has been at the forefront in the campaign to change the name.
“It creates a real reputational risk for FedEx,” said Jonas Kron, Trillium Asset Management, which helps manage the Wisconsin tribe’s assets and supported the shareholder filing. “We saw what happened with the L.A. Clippers and different brands disassociating themselves from the team. This is really a moment where FedEx needs to ask itself if this is a name they want to be associated with.”
Kron said FedEx is seeking to quash the shareholders’ filing through the Securities and Exchange Commission. He said a decision from the SEC is expected within three weeks, and the issue could come to a vote at the company’s annual meeting in September. Last year, the shareholders voted down a proposal that asked the company to reconsider its naming rights for the stadium.
Fitzgerald said FedEx has no comment on the shareholder filing.
To date, none of the many companies with ties to the Redskins have announced any plans to curtail or cancel sponsorship because of the debate over the name. Harris Teeter issued a statement Thursday saying the grocery chain “has been following this story and 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.”
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