The month of June saw an unprecedented push for racial justice that impacted brand marketing like never before. Land O’Lakes retired its Native American mascot. Uncle Ben and Mrs. Butterworth’s are reviewing their slavery-era branding, while Aunt Jemima is getting a total rebrand. Dreyer’s has pledged to change the name of Eskimo Pie.
So it’s no wonder there’s renewed pressure being placed on the Washington Redskins, the NFL’s Washington, D.C. team. For decades, Native American leaders have asked, demanded and finally sued in an effort to compel the team to stop using the racist slur in its branding—to no avail. Now, leaders are hoping that the new awareness around racism and marketing will finally persuade the NFL to take action.
Since Adweek first covered the Redskins controversy on June 3, we’ve reached out to the NFL and the team for comment several times, with no response. Elsewhere, the Redskins have taken an oddly compartmentalized stance against racism: In early June, coach Ron Rivera condemned the killing of George Floyd and said the “time for doing is now” in regards to acting against racism. But when asked shortly afterward whether he would consider changing the team’s name, he responded to a radio host, “That’s a discussion for another time.”
In lieu of direct comment from the league or team, this week we reached out to 10 of the over 100 brands (mostly apparel) that license the Washington Redskins trademark for merchandise, many of which have taken public stances in support of the Black Lives Matter movement against racism in recent weeks.
Besides the NFL and the Redskins, we sent requests for comment on Monday to Nike, DKNY, Under Armour, Fanatics, Dooney & Bourke, New Era, 47 Brand, Touch by Alyssa Milano, Zippo, GIII and Mitchell & Ness. Only one offered a response—Milano directly responded on behalf of her athletic apparel brand.
“As a licensee of the NFL with my line of female fan apparel, I have voiced my opinion over the years to my manufacturing company about the contractual obligation of producing merchandise for the [Redskins] under their deal with the NFL,” Milano told Adweek in an email. “I am against the use of disparaging names and imagery in sports. Full stop. Sports teams and leagues need to stand up to racism.”
Milano told Adweek that she signed a contract with GIII, a company that licenses fashion brands to the NFL.
“I have asked them to stop producing merchandise for that team (don’t even want to write the word) numerous times, and they have said that contractually they can’t pick and choose which teams under their contract with the NFL they produce merchandise for,” Milano said. “I was told I’d be in a breach of contract with the manufacturing company.”
Adweek asked GIII for clarification about the NFL’s licensing contracts, but was told to ask the NFL directly.
It’s likely that many of the apparel brands that work with the NFL—as well as many Americans—are unaware of the meaning behind the Redskins team name, the history of the Native American community’s efforts to change it, and the overall impact of seeing a racist slur on clothing.
“These types of racial slurs and Native mascots cause psychological harm to Native American people and especially to Native youth,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of IllumiNative and a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “It increases depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation. And when Native youth are exposed to these, they have a harder time imagining a future for themselves.”
In mid-June, activist group IllumiNative, which fights negative portrayals of Native Americans in media, launched a renewed effort to change the Washington team’s name, with a social media campaign using the hashtag #TheTimeIsNow. So far, according to Echo Hawk, around two dozen powerful influencers ranging from Hollywood director (and Adweek Creative 100 honoree) Ava DuVernay to soccer star Ali Krieger have helped promote the campaign.
According to research by IllumiNative, 65% of Native American youth say they are “highly offended” by the use of Native mascots in sports. But the Washington football team’s name has a uniquely ugly history.