The Washington Redskins' Overdue Name Change Teaches a Powerful Lesson on How to Lead
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Like most long-standing professional sports leagues, the NFL hasn’t exactly been a model of inclusion or equality over the years. From 1934-'46, Black players weren’t even allowed on the field. And among the league’s more recent issues have been criticism of its pyramid scheme-esque compensation structure and gross mismanagement of league politics and public relations following Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in 2016.
Given that context, it’s hardly surprising that the Washington Redskins have stalled on changing their team name —widely regarded as a racial slur toward Native Americans — despite it being the subject of protest for literally decades. Seemingly, that era is now coming to a close, with the team having issued a statement saying that owner Dan Snyder and head coach Ron Rivera were "working closely to develop a new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years.”
FedEx, PepsiCo and Bank of America, which are all major sponsors of the Redskins, have publicly supported a name change for the team. While these companies' public statements have been mostly diplomatic, there’s been reporting to suggest that ultimatums have been given in private. In other words, the answer to, “Why now?” is, “Because money.”
Now, you might believe that the whole controversy is overblown, and possibly point out that the current Redskins logo was actually designed by a collective of Native Americans who saw it as a positive representation of their history and values. You might argue that it’s an unpopular move with fans or that there are more important things to be worrying about. And you would undoubtedly find people who agree with you, even if I don’t. But the recent wave of social unrest and calls to action following George Floyd's killing have hastened what was always an inevitable move away from such hurtful branding, no matter how fiercely Snyder protested over the years.
A Missed Opportunity for Proactive Leadership
Ultimately, an NFL team is a brand, and owning it is largely about making money by building the popularity of that brand. The Redskins have had two options in the face of persistent pushback: Change the name years ago, alienating some fans while earning the gratitude of others, or stand firm and insist it's a matter of belief in what the Redskins iconography represents to fans and the city of Washington, D.C.
Instead, Redskins management has consistently opted to take the one path that will destroy outside perceptions of leadership within the higher levels of any organization: throw in the towel in the middle of a fight.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the name is being changed, but as someone who has made a career of studying and writing about great leadership, this situation exemplifies an ultimate absence of it.
If you believe something is the morally right choice, then you should pursue it decisively and proactively, even if there will be a price to pay in the short run. But if you don't share others' objections, and have been vocal in your position, then you can't simply about-face and acquiesce. That kind of in-between reluctance is a clear indicator of poor intuition and reactive management.
Pardon the pun, but from a leadership perspective, Snyder and co.'s handling of this predicament from day one may go down as the biggest dropped ball in Redskins franchise history, and it’s something we all need to learn from.