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New stadium for Commanders is a political football for local leaders

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser signals support for bringing the team back to the District

Washington Commanders co-owners Dan and Tanya Snyder, pose with the new uniforms and helmets during the name change reveal party at FedEx Field. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Football Team finally has a new name. Now will it get a new home?

Local politicians and pundits wasted little time sharing their opinions about where the Washington Commanders should play after the football team’s new name and burgundy, black and gold uniforms and helmets were unveiled on the “Today” show Wednesday morning.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tweeted her endorsement of a return to the District for the renamed franchise, which currently plays at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

“Washington’s football franchise has had a storied history, and we are excited that today they will begin a new, necessary chapter as the Washington Commanders,” Bowser wrote. “… The next chapter for the Washington Commanders should be a return to winning, right here in DC.”

The rebranding also represents a new era in the complicated relationship with team co-owner Daniel Snyder. Snyder faces ongoing criticism following revelations about the organization’s workplace. Last year the National Football League fined the team $10 million for fostering a culture in which sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation were commonplace. And Snyder has openly pitted Virginia, D.C. and Maryland against one another as he seeks a new stadium deal.

District leaders, including Bowser, had made clear that the team’s previous name was offensive and would preclude it from returning to the District. But with the 90-year-old franchise’s do-over, and a new name free of controversy, that roadblock was removed.

While Bowser was effusive, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) splashed cold water on a possible return to the District for the team, saying in an email that he doesn’t support paying for a new stadium and that he’s troubled by allegations related to the sexual harassment investigation of the team’s leadership.

“I don’t want us to pay for a football stadium that is used less than 10 times a year and in terms of non-sporting events, would compete with other stadiums that we’ve built in the city,” Mendelson said in the email. “I also remain very troubled that news reports indicate Dan Snyder interfered with NFL investigation of sexual harassment within that organization.”

Snyder’s lawyer A. Scott Bolden of the law firm Reed Smith, which represents Snyder and the team, said in a statement in December that there had been no interference with the investigation.

A 2019 Washington Post poll found 59 percent of residents supported the team building a new football stadium where RFK Stadium stands, but a smaller 28 percent supported using city funds to help finance a new stadium. About 4 in 10 supported the city providing land to build a new stadium.

Washington’s NFL team announces ‘Commanders’ as its new name

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) responded to Bowser’s tweet with one of his own, writing, “Regardless of a name change, building an NFL stadium at the RFK site would be a bad idea — for the taxpayers and for the residents. We can do so much better for housing, jobs, parks, & the Anacostia River.”

Team officials, including Snyder and co-owner Tanya Snyder, did not address the possibility of a new stadium during Wednesday’s announcement, but they have been actively pursuing possible new locations for several years.

Representatives of the team met last year with legislators in Virginia to push for a new stadium complex, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers introduced bills last month to build a stadium and commercial complex in Northern Virginia as a package to bring professional football to the commonwealth.

Early reaction in Richmond, where the General Assembly is considering a pair of bills intended to lure the team to Virginia, was muted at best.

Two bills to lure the Washington Football Team to Virginia filed in Richmond

“The new name is fine, but I also liked the other one,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who is carrying legislation that would create a football stadium authority to oversee the financing and construction of a massive retail and entertainment development anchored by an NFL stadium.

“I can learn to love it,” texted Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Legislative Black Caucus, who’s been supportive of the stadium bills. “Love the uniforms tho.”

Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) was with those poking fun, tweeting: “On this #GroundHogDay, Punxsutawney Phil predicts 6 more weeks of public ridicule over this new name.”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who had given the stadium legislation a shout-out in his formal address to the General Assembly last month, did not issue a statement on the matter. His office did not respond to a request Wednesday for his take on the name.

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday did not mention where the team might eventually play when he issued a congratulatory tweet directed at team president Jason Wright. “We look forward to the start of this new chapter in the team’s storied history,” Hogan wrote.

Maryland House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), who is Black and also of Native American descent, once introduced legislation pressuring the team to drop its previous name. Wednesday represented a day he never thought he’d see, he said.

“Of course, I never thought they would change it. But times have moved forward,” he said.

“This will make numerous people happy, and it will also make numerous people sad,” he said, adding he thought that fans who grew up with the name and never saw it as offensive felt they have lost something important to them.

Becoming the Commanders: How Washington’s NFL team found its new name

The Commanders name, Branch said, had little bearing on whether he and many other lawmakers would now more aggressively try to keep the team’s stadium in Maryland.

“They should stay in that stadium right where they are,” Branch said, citing the economic needs of the state. But the new name doesn’t mean most of Maryland will start rooting for the Washington Commanders, he added.

“We have a team that we love, which is, of course, the Ravens,” he said. “I’m not looking for two teams.”

For years, Maryland lawmakers eager to keep the team stadium — and its economic boon to thousands of surrounding homes — have had to navigate roadblocks heightened by the team’s offensive name, its lackluster record and its self-inflicted controversies off the field.

The retirement of the football team’s disparaging moniker and the hiring of Wright to lead the team were both helpful steps in building the case that it was worth the effort of lawmakers to help persuade Maryland taxpayers to champion a new stadium.

Del. Ben Barnes (D-Prince George’s), who represents the county home to FedEx Field, said lawmakers who represent the community near the stadium are very eager to keep the Commanders playing in Prince George’s County, provided it made financial sense.

“The team name announcement is exciting for fans, but the calculus on keeping the team here has to be driven by dollars and cents, and what the team contributes to the local economy,” he said.

Kevin Sheehan, a longtime D.C. sports radio personality and morning host on The Team 980, said a return to the District may be the team’s only way to bring back fans who have soured on it in recent years.

“The idea that this franchise that has lost half their fan base over the last decade is somehow going to recoup that in Prince William County or western Loudoun County is, you know, fantasy,” Sheehan said. “The way to create the best overall gameday experience would be to have a stadium that is accessible to the most amount of people. And in a convenient place where you can develop retail around it and turn it into an entire day experience, not just for a three-hour game."

Scott Clement, Michael Brice-Saddler and Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.

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