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What Ended the Redskins: Nuns and Woke Capital

Three months later, questions about religious orders, progressive investors, and the name-change campaign are murkier than ever.

The Redskins held on for a good long while. As countless other, lesser offenders—high school teams, colleges, even the freshly mascot-free Cleveland Indians—kowtowed to the woke brigade, the Washington football team (now literally the Washington Football Team) resisted calls for change.

This resistance was not without its costs. It was, for instance, one of the pressures that drove the franchise out of the capital and into a nearby Maryland suburb in the ’90s. Media establishments were never hesitant to vilify the team—WaPo famously led the charge. But fans remained loyal, and the franchise soldiered on.

Until 2020, that is. After decades of offended outcry, owner Dan Snyder had a sudden change of heart. Snyder’s hardline 2013 stance was notable: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” But a 2020 review came to a quick close in the summer, and the name and mascot were dropped unceremoniously, and without replacement.

To hear the media tell it, we have George Floyd to thank. Here’s Newsweek: “In the wake of George Floyd’s killing on May 25 and the return to prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the league has taken a strong stance in the fight to promote social justice and to end racial discrimination.” And again: “In the two-and-a-half months following Floyd’s killing, however, change has come at a previously unthinkable pace.” From SportingNews: “[T]he team announced the review after widespread protests following the death of African American George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May…” Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, tipped her hat to Mr. Floyd as well, tellingThe Washington Post, “We owe that to the tragic death of George Floyd. Out of that death has come a reexamination of everything—including names that many of us have long tried to get changed and now are forcing the owner to change.”

There may be some truth to that, given the power Floyd’s memory has gathered as a cudgel for the cultural revolution. But the lion’s share of the credit goes to major corporate sponsors—Nike, Pepsi, and Fedex most of all—who threatened to cut ties with the franchise if it did not drop the name. We should not believe that this threat was leveled from the goodness of their hearts, nor any deep-seated commitment to justice—as of this February, Nike was still using slave labor. Rather, they were acting under financial pressures of their own: earlier this summer, investors’ letters were sent to each of these corporations, boasting “nearly 100 signatories, including investor groups and foundations representing more than $620 billion in assets.”

These letters are not exactly news. They received passing mention in most reports of the name change three months ago, and even a bit of dedicated, fawning attention from our friends at The Washington Post. Much was made at the time of Fedex’s courageous stand against injustice. (The entire valuation of the Redskins franchise—not the profit Fedex gains from the relationship, but the value of the whole organization—is just over one half of one percent of the capital leveraged against Fedex in the letter.)

But it seems very little research was done into the three letters’ background. This is understandable, in a way—investigation meets primarily with dead ends and dropped inquiries. The most interesting part of the Redskins debacle of 2020 may turn out to be precisely what we don’t know.

The long list of concerned investors contains all the usual suspects. This includes large firms focused on “socially conscious” and “socially responsible” investing, such as Trillium Asset Management, Boston Common Asset Management, and Boston Trust Walden Company. Some of these so-called “socially responsible investors” (SRIs) have clear ties to our progressive elites. Amy Domini, for instance, founder and chair of Domini Impact Investments—often cited as “the leading voice for socially responsible investing”—was honored at the launch of the Clinton Global Initiative by Bill Clinton himself.

But the list also includes a staggering number of Catholic religious bodies. In all, 28 congregations or provinces from various orders are represented—just under one third of the entire list. Many of these fall into a very particular type: shrinking, aging congregations with clear progressive bents. A number of them have been notably active in shareholder activism before, such as the Adrian Dominican Sisters in gun manufacturing, and a secondary boycott against Dick’s Sporting Goods. Nevertheless, the sheer number of religious congregations listed here, combined with the nature of some co-signatories and the lack of information on the campaign’s origin, raises questions.

The co-appearance of these two distinct families of investors—right down to many of the individual groups involved—is reminiscent of a series of incidents in 2013, when religious investors were shown by Acton Institute reporting to have been actively manipulated by big-money activists. In that earlier episode, socially conscious groups were drafted as co-signatories to petitions whose drivers did not disclose ulterior motives—whether they be financial interests or political agendas. In a number of cases, the shareholder resolutions were actually authored by Bruce Freed, president of the Soros-funded Center for Political Accountability, and the Trillium fund was also involved.

The first-listed signatory on each of these more recent letters is First Peoples Worldwide, an indigenous activism project hosted at the University of Colorado Boulder. In addition to this top billing, a post on the First Peoples Worldwide website identifies the group as “lead[ing] investors’ call for [the] NFL Washington team name change.” But no actual author is identified, and few details are provided as to the origins of this particular initiative. Given past, documented instances of questionable third parties authoring such petitions in the names of socially conscious investors, these are questions worth asking. Neither First Peoples Worldwide nor its director, Carla Fredericks, responded to multiple inquiries on this point.

Also unanswered is the question of just how these 87 signatories—and the 28 religious ones in particular—were gathered. The American Conservative reached out to many of the congregations listed to gain a clearer understanding of their involvement in the campaign.

Sister Teresa George, chair of the Daughters of Charity’s Socially Responsible Investment Committee, said, “[W]e do actively and deliberately participate in shareholder advocacy on issues that are of particular concern for us from a ministry and faith perspective. Issues such as human rights, inclusivity, racism and the dignity of workers.” While she declined to speak to the specifics of this circumstance, the sister stated that “when we add our name to the communication we take responsibility for the message that is delivered.”

It seems, however, that not every signatory was so deliberate. The provincial secretary of the Capuchin Province of St. Mary looked into the letter sent on behalf of his province. His answer was simple, and raises concerns: “I can’t find anybody in the organization who knows anything about it.”

19 other provinces or congregations had not responded to our inquiries at press time, though four of them had previously expressed their intention to do so.

However signatories were recruited—and the Capuchins’ unawareness of their own inclusion invites serious questions about the methods—it seems fairly obvious that socially conscious Catholic religious were not the driving force behind this campaign, any more than George Floyd was. A national furor stoked by activists in the streets became a ripe opportunity for activists in the boardroom—and just as in 2013 a host of well-meaning, religiously motivated shareholders were brought on board for additional leverage.

The pressure of their capital proved a useful tool in a long, and long unsuccessful, crusade. It may seem insignificant, but there is now one less roadblock, and one more precedent, in the woke left’s effort to rewrite (or simply erase) history. No doubt the pawns in this game—more than a few in that list of 87—are just as much in the dark concerning their fellow travelers as we are.

Money talks, sure—but big money barely whispers.

about the author

Declan Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University. His work has been published at National Review, Crisis, and elsewhere.

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