(NBA) Commissioner Silver showed great leadership in banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life. — Magic Johnson, NBA Hall of Famer
Exemplary leadership doesn’t come easily. It takes courage. It takes a strength of character that, frankly, not too many possess. As one chief executive I know likes to say, the best of leaders don’t “succumb to the convenient.” They push to identify the best course, not just the easiest. That’s what the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did when faced with the scurrilous and prejudiced rants of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. But the opposite is true of the National Football League’s leadership. When it comes to a series of prejudiced actions tainting the NFL, the league and its leaders have tripped and stumbled, fumbling away the opportunity like a slippery-fingered running back.
Take the issue facing the NFL’s Washington D.C. franchise. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) recently canceled six federal trademark registrations for the Washington team, ruling that the team’s name (the “Redskins”) is disparaging to Native Americans. In its ruling, the board cited federal trademark law that prohibits registration of marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt. It’s a long-running case. The board issued a similar ruling in 1999, but that was overturned largely on a technicality when the courts decided that the plaintiffs were too old. The new case was launched by a younger group of Native Americans, but during appeal, which the team has filed, the team can retain its trademark protection. And the appeal process could take years. Meanwhile, the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, has declared that he intends to keep using the disparaging name.
Snyder has dug in, ignoring the PTO ruling and the palpable insensitivity toward Native Americans. And league officials aren’t helping. Both Snyder and the NFL presumably worry that changing the name would cost the team and the league millions in brand equity, merchandise and sponsorship sales. According to Forbes, the Washington Redskins are the eighth-most valuable sports franchise in the world, and the fifth-most valuable in the United States. This means Snyder stands to lose quite a bit if he changes the team’s name and fans don’t go along with a new name.
Okay, but to me this is fearful, short-sighted leadership. Snyder’s team, a middle of the pack NFL performer prone to missing the playoffs rather than excelling in them, isn’t exactly the poster team for merchandising sales success or corporate sponsorships. By renaming the team, the benefits would likely outweigh the negatives. Existing business partners would likely want to be part of an admirable act of leadership and a new bold direction. And a new name and new logo would pave the way for new sponsors, eager to be part of something current and potentially exciting.
The hammer for change could, and should, come from the team’s current sponsors. Some (particularly those connected to the Native American community) have already distanced themselves from the team. But big-brand sponsors should step up and exert the kind of pressure they’ve wielded in the NBA’s Sterling scandal.
Immediately after the leak about LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s egregious comments about his girlfriend’s association with black people, nearly all existing sponsors distanced themselves from the Clippers. In a show of courageous and prudent leadership, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver moved swiftly to ban Sterling from the NBA for life. His decisive move encouraged some sponsors to return, but several — including Corona, Virgin America, CarMax and Burger King — continued to hold out.
The annual combined revenue from the 20 or so sponsors that bailed exceeds $10 million — more than half of the Clippers’ total sponsorship revenue for the season, according to an LA Times report. And forecasts for the Clippers to reach up to $22 million in sponsorship revenue next season now appear to be unrealistic, according to team officials. Soon after the scandal broke, chief executives of Disney, Turner Broadcasting, ESPN and American Express reached out to Silver to “make clear that the league’s response would have a major effect on the nature of their companies’ relationships with the NBA going forward,” the commissioner said in a sworn statement.
The NFL’s sponsors could put a similar kind of pressure on the NFL’s Washington franchise, or better yet, the team’s owner could demonstrate the sort of bold leadership shown in the NBA league offices. I’m not saying that the stance of the NFL’s Snyder to retain the team name equates to Sterling’s wildly discriminatory remarks. But, Snyder’s disregard of the “harm” the Washington team name causes for a significant population of Americans, is something neither NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell nor Snyder, as leaders, should accept. By changing the team name, Snyder would fuel heretofore unrecognized brand equity among American fans and corporate sponsors, who look dubiously at the franchise now.
Some Washingtonians have already demonstrated courage in leadership. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he won’t attend a Redskins home game until the team changes its name. Here’s hoping that Snyder, the NFL’s brass, and the many corporate sponsors who currently support Washington, succumb to the inconvenient, and display a similar brand of courageous leadership.