Team Names, Merch, and Making Money: Bigotry Trumps Capitalism

by Neil H. Buchanan

Question: When do money-hungry businessmen -- men who tout the idea that there is nothing more important than the almighty dollar, not only as a measure of business success but as evidence of personal value (and even virtue) -- decide to leave dollars on the proverbial table?

Answer: When they would rather stoke bigotry and culture wars than make money.

Surprisingly often, the cheerleaders for unbridled capitalism firmly embrace squishy things like "culture," even though they mock every other attempt to say that life is about more than money.  And it is almost invariably true that the cultural commitments of these men (and very occasionally women) are all about reinforcing racial, gender, and class hierarchies.  What fun is it to make money unless you can spend it to keep your inferiors down?  There is a lot going on here.

For the past fifty years, but especially in the last decade, the National Football League's franchise in Washington, D.C., has been pressured to change its openly racist team name.  Standing defiantly against history and decency was the organization's principal owner, Daniel Snyder, who once said that he would "NEVER" change the team's name.  He commissioned and then touted bogus polling purporting to show that most Native Americans are not offended by the slur, and he even went so far as to say that he was honoring the people whom he was insulting.

One of the most jarringly sudden -- though welcome -- changes in the past month or so has been a reassessment of systemic racism, including our blithe acceptance of celebrations of bigotry in American society.  Whereas it used to be considered wise for Democrats to look the other way, it is now not merely the right thing but also the politically safe thing to say that, for example, military bases should not be named for traitors.  This change is even more stark than the turnaround on the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans opposed fiercely and Democrats at best weakly defended for years, only to find in 2018 and beyond that it is now Republicans who are on the defensive.

This is about more than the headline-grabbing (but again, quite welcome) decisions to abandon tacit support of Confederate iconography.  The nod-and-wink approach to Confederate idolatry -- "Oh, well, it's just a southern pride thing" -- has long pervaded popular culture.  Just as one example, try re-watching "Doc Hollywood," the 1991 romantic comedy set in a small South Carolina town.  In the middle of the film, there is a parade through town, led by the mayor in a Confederate officer's uniform, with a kazoo band playing "Dixie" in the background.  And the Black citizens smile along with it all.  No problem here, it is just so charmingly anachronistic, right?  See also 2002's "Sweet Home Alabama," in which Hollywood bigwigs decided to idealize a monochromatic view of the South.

The silver lining in all of these situations is that public attitudes can precipitate change -- too late, in many cases, but still in important ways.  NASCAR has now banned the Confederate flag from its events, for chrissakes!  This is not because the people at the head of that organization were unaware of the problem before now.  They decided that it is at long last in their interests to disassociate themselves from something that is pushing more and more people away.

And that is what happened to the Washington football team as well.  Snyder is as much of a knuckle-dragger as ever, not even bothering to acknowledge why the team's name is changing (much less to apologize, or even offer the typical non-apology to "anyone who was offended"), but he buckled when other capitalists decided that they could no longer play footsie with him.  When FedEx hinted that it might want to take its name off of the stadium, and when retailers suddenly refused to sell the team's merchandise, the end of the team's name arrived quickly.

But aha, a reader might say, this is actually proof that capitalists do respond to pressure -- not for their own good reasons but ultimately by listening to "the market."  Indeed, one of the infamous academic defenses of the wisdom of the so-called free market came from conservative icon Milton Friedman, who argued that racism and sexism are inimical to profit-seeking, such that capitalists who do not discriminate will be at a competitive advantage vis-a-vis their unenlightened brethren, ultimately driving discrimination out of the market.

Friedman and his followers could never explain why it would take decades or even centuries for competition to drive out profit-sapping bigotry, a lacuna that became especially difficult to overlook as the "rational expectations revolution" led hyper-conservative economists to claim that markets are driven to their long-run equilibrium points immediately.  This leaves conservatives with the task of finding (or inventing) other explanations for employment (and housing, and other forms of) discrimination, because surely no capitalist can survive if he indulges irrational biases.  Friedman said so.

At best, then, the idea that the market will solve all social problems is slippery and incomplete, serving mostly as an excuse to have the government do nothing about longstanding problems in the country.  And even if one thinks that the market ultimately triumphed in Washington's football controversy, it is interesting to learn from situations in which obvious profit-making opportunities are fiercely resisted by these culturally backward men.

When the Washington Slur-Names controversy briefly raged in 2014, I wrote a Dorf on Law column in which I pointed out how easy it would have been for Snyder to make a huge pile of dough by changing his team's name.  I pointed out that Snyder could even have claimed to have been forced into doing so, allowing him not to annoy the racists in his fan base (and continue to profit from their purchases of "retro" merchandise) while making loads of money selling the new merch to people who would have welcomed the change.

In the comment section for that column, Professor Dorf cleverly parodied a Friedmanesque retort to my argument: "Neil, as an economist you know the answer. Because what you have described would make easy money for Snyder, he must have done it already. All news to the contrary is therefore counterfeit."  The converse of that argument is, of course, that when something has not happened, it must be because it was not profitable.

But it was ridiculous to think that an entire, rabid fan base could not have been activated to buy merchandise in response to a change.  After all, teams change logos and even color schemes with surprising frequency, simply to generate reasons for their fans to update their wardrobes.  See, e.g., Denver Broncos, New York Giants, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, and on and on, many of which have changed merchandised logos and colors multiple times.

Even now, Snyder is not only toying with naming the team "the Washington Warriors" (allowing him to continue to insult Native Americans, but to do so without using an unprintable epithet), but he is committing to keeping the current color scheme.  But why?  So people can keep their old stuff and not feel left out?  Where is the profit in that?  Are we supposed to see people from behind and not know which jersey they are wearing?  If so, Snyder is being awfully sensitive -- unprofitably so -- to the tender feelings of the unrepentant bigots in his fan base.

Note that I am not at all saying that everyone who feels team pride in seeing a familiar color scheme is a bigot.  I am saying that even the most devoted fans can quickly get behind even a big change.  Notre Dame makes money by selling Kelly green jerseys (and having their players wear them in games), even though their traditional color has been dark blue.  If they were to announce a permanent change, there would be some grumbling followed by a new enthusiasm for the Green and Gold.  If Washington's local team went from dark red and mustard yellow to something else, DC fans would quickly adapt -- especially if Snyder could figure out how to put a competitive team on the field.

Speaking of college teams, the most infamous example of someone spending money to reinforce bigotry is probably the University of North Dakota's long-brewing controversy, in which a Las Vegas casino mogul (and UND alum) ...
"... built a $104 million arena on the University of North Dakota campus for the Fighting Sioux hockey program. Midway in its construction, Engelstad threatened to withdraw funding if the long-standing nickname were to be changed. The logo was placed in thousands of instances in the arena, making the prospect of removal a costly measure. Later, Engelstad placed the stadium under private (rather than University) management and stipulated that the Fighting Sioux motif be kept indefinitely. An Engelstad family trust continues to own the arena and rents it to the University."
The old name is still embraced by a large segment of the fan base, but that merely supports my point about Snyder's anti-profitable decisions.  In the North Dakota controversy, another titan of capitalism (who was infamous for having been a Nazi sympathizer: "Hitler was right") spent extra money to make it necessary for others to spend even more money to stop supporting bigotry.  How inefficient!

Now that Donald Trump has decided to embrace even more openly the white supremacist themes in his campaign and his policies, one need not wonder where he stands on issues of race.  But what is surprising, as John Oliver recently pointed out (and as others have surely observed), is that Trump completely blew an opportunity to make big money from the coronavirus pandemic.  Rather than turning mask-wearing into a sign of weakness, he could have sold untold numbers of red "Make America Great Again" masks to his devoted followers.

Of course, Trump's self-inflicted wounds with respect to the pandemic go far beyond lost merchandising opportunities.  By turning mask-wearing into a question of machismo, his instincts to stoke the culture-wars have caused him to make the pandemic worse by causing millions of people to fight against wearing masks, thus further damaging himself politically.  Similarly, he stoked his gun-wielding followers to menace governors and to convince everyone to try to end quarantines too soon.

We have long known, of course, that Trump is actually terrible at business.  Even so, it is fascinating that he would simply ignore a money-making opportunity, especially when it would have been so easy for him to turn mask-wearing into a macho thing among his followers.

In the end, it is interesting to see situations in which even the most basic elements of business success do not convince self-styled business geniuses to change their ways.  When a rich person does something for the good of his employees or other stakeholders beyond the owners of the firm's stock, that is dismissed as soft-headed sentimentality that will ultimately be self-defeating.  But bigots sometimes lose money (and more) by indulging their bigotry, and they seem not just happy about it but positively determined to continue to do so.