NFL team’s stadium option is in holding pattern amid political roadblock

The National Parks Subcommittee held up legislation Wednesday in the effort for the Washington Commanders to potentially return to RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

The nine-member subcommittee heard testimony of a bill passed by the House of Representatives in February that would allow the stadium site and the surrounding 174 acres to transfer from control of the federal government and the National Parks Service to the government of the District of Columbia for 99 years.

The bill would have to make it out of committee, pass the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden before D.C. and the Washington ownership group, led by Josh Harris, could possibly hammer out a deal to bring the Commanders back to the nation’s capital.

One U.S. Senator, however, has reservations in giving D.C. and the Commanders that power because of the team’s abandonment of Native American imagery in its logo and branding.

Here is what we know about the bill, the drama and the Commanders’ larger stadium situation.

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Will RFK Stadium bill pass the Senate?

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the ranking member for the committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said he would withhold his support for the bill – preventing it from advancing out of committee – because the organization no longer uses the logo that was created by Walter ‘Blackie’ Wetzel, a member of the Blackfleet Tribe. The logo, introduced in the 1970s, was based on a former tribe member.

“I’m here representing a voice that is not being listened to, and that is the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana and the Wetzel family,” Daines said, according to the Washington Post. “I serve them. … I’m here representing my constituents.”

Bills with as limited of a scope as this one typically require unanimous support in committee to secure easier passage through the Senate. For now, it remains in political limbo.

RFK Stadium Bill passed by House in February

The House passed the D.C. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act by a 348-55 margin with support from both parties.

“Incredible bi-partisan landslide of support…for the bill to give the RFK site to DC,” Commanders co-owner Mark Ein wrote on social media.

“During my tenure in Congress, I’ve worked to transfer control of underused federal land in the District to local D.C. so it can be put to productive use,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said.

A representative from the NPS testified at the Senate hearing that it would be beneficial for the land to be under the jurisdiction of D.C.

What are Commanders’ other stadium options? Does Josh Harris want RFK site?

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser lobbied Congress to give D.C. control of the land to redevelop the stadium in the hopes of attracting the Commanders. Bowser recently struck a deal to keep the Washington Capitals (NHL) and the Washington Wizards (NBA) in downtown D.C. after owner Ted Leonsis initially sought to move the teams to Northern Virginia.

The Commanders have been courted by the other local governments in the area. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin both appeared at training camp prior to last season. The Commanders’ football operations are based in Ashburn, Virginia, while their stadium – previously known as FedExField before the company ended its naming rights agreement in February – is in Landover, Maryland. Opened in 1997, it is widely considered one of the stadiums most in need of renovation in the NFL.

Upon purchasing the team in July 2023, Harris said one of his main priorities was upgrading the current stadium while securing the long-term home of the franchise. Harris, who grew up a Commanders fan while going to games at RFK, said his earliest memories involve walking down East Capitol Street toward the stadium.

‘We would love to have a stadium where the opposing players fear to come, and our fans love to come and our players love to come and feel welcomed,’ Harris said. ‘That’s what I experienced at RFK. And whatever happens with the stadium, that’s the kind of stadium experience I want to create.’

Which teams played at RFK Stadium?

Robert F. Kennedy Stadium opened in 1961 as the home of the Washington football franchise and the Washington Senators, who moved in 1971. The Nationals used the stadium upon MLB’s return to D.C. from 2005-07.

The Commanders moved to Maryland under owner Jack Kent Cooke after the 1996 season. The Howard Bison football team used the stadium until 2016, and D.C. United of Major League Soccer used the stadium through 2017.

How is the Dan Quinn logo controversy involved?

It’s not directly. But the Commanders’ first-year head coach wearing a T-shirt that featured feathers, thus referencing the team’s former logo with Native American imagery, on May 11 was timely.

“Make no mistake, this logo was inspired and envisioned by Wetzel as a tribute to Native Americans,” Daines said in his prepared remarks. “It is not a caricature. It is a description of pride and strength. Of courage and honor.”

Wetzel’s grandson told local D.C. television station WUSA9 that he has spoken with the current Washington ownership about ways to honor his grandfather and the logo. During the hearing, Daines acknowledged the meeting, but said there must be an agreement between the team and family for him to support the bill.

‘My hope is we can come to a place where we can honor my grandfather permanently in the midst of the change,’ Ryan Wetzel said.

The team’s former nickname, which was changed along with the logo in 2020, is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘an insulting and contemptuous’ term to define Indigenous Americans.

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