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Commanders’ efforts to build new stadium hitting roadblocks over financing, sexual harassment investigation

RFK Stadium in D.C. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Commanders’ efforts to build a new stadium have hit more roadblocks over financing and concern about widespread sexual harassment allegations involving the organization.

The football team has pitted Virginia, Maryland and D.C. against one another to deliver the most ambitious pitch to lure the Commanders. But the team’s tactics, history and culture have made it a tough sell to some politicians who hold sway over incentives or land deals the Commanders need to execute their vision of a multibillion-dollar sports-entertainment destination.

Maryland’s governor on Tuesday flatly said he refused to engage in a bidding war to keep the team at its current home at FedEx Field in Landover.

The ongoing congressional investigation into alleged sexual harassment within the Commanders organization is also complicating federal legislation that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) plans to introduce to sell the RFK Stadium land to D.C. That legislation would enable the city to attract the Commanders if the D.C. Council agrees. Norton said she intends to eventually file the bill, but the investigation has made the Commanders unpopular among House Democrats, including key leaders she’ll need to move the bill.

The Commanders are contractually obligated to stay at FedEx until 2027. Afterward, the team can play at a new stadium or continue to play there.

“I think [the Commanders are] using everyone back and forth as they have been for eight years,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Tuesday.

Norton said she is trying to decouple the legislation from the Commanders stadium issue, pitching the bill to House Democrats as legislation that advances D.C. home rule and gives the city the ability to develop whatever economic development project it likes. But persuading House Democrats to see it the same way is still a challenge.

“I’ve got to make sure that Democrats are comfortable with the bill,” Norton said in an interview.

RFK has long appealed to Commanders owner Daniel M. Snyder, who grew up going to games there as a fan, but any potential pitch from the city hinges on first acquiring the property. Virginia has developed the most lucrative pitch so far — $350 million plus an ongoing cut of tax revenue to bring the team to Northern Virginia — but its legislature adjourned Saturday without having settled details on the price tag.

Maryland lawmakers are working on a plan that would invest hundreds of millions of dollars around the existing stadium site, building roads and infrastructure nearby.

But Hogan said Tuesday he would not support building the team a stadium, nor handing out the types of incentives Virginia has advanced, as the team is “negotiating, trying to pit everyone against each other.”

“We’d like to keep them in Maryland,” Hogan said. “We’re not going to get into a bidding war over them. … If Virginia wants to do that, and they want to go to Virginia, I would say, 'Good luck.’ ”

Eager to compete, Maryland developing Commanders stadium deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars

Hogan’s unwillingness to back a publicly financed stadium by no means spells the end of Maryland’s efforts to keep the team facilities in the state.

The infrastructure pitch with a price tag in the hundreds of millions is still in play, according to state officials and lawmakers. Key legislators say the team’s existing footprint in Maryland and uncertainty about Virginia’s proposal — the state has never before built a football stadium — make Maryland a very attractive option.

“They own a major asset here in land; they’d have to purchase that over there. I doubt the Virginia taxpayers are going to be okay with their government just giving away hundreds of acres of land,” Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s) said. “They’ll have to spend something.”

Efforts to return the team to RFK could get launched later this spring.

Norton said in an interview that she expects it may be a month or two before she is ready to introduce the bill to sell the RFK land to D.C. She said she needs more time to remedy concerns from House Democrats and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, about legislation that could possibly benefit a team Congress is investigating.

After the Washington Football Team changed its name to the Commanders last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she wants to welcome the team back to D.C. at RFK Stadium — something she had held off advocating while the team had its previous name. But because the RFK Stadium site is National Park Service land, the federal government must sell the land to D.C. before the city can negotiate any deal.

If Norton were to introduce the bill now without broad Democratic support, the bill would have little hope of consideration.

“This bill is [going to] the Natural Resources Committee,” Norton said. “It’s been held up there for 20 years because of a name that was insulting to Native Americans, and there’s still hard feelings on that committee about that. It’s not as if the chairman of the committee, Raul Grijalva, is anxious to move on the bill.”

Grijalva was attending to House business and not immediately able to comment Tuesday afternoon. A Commanders spokesperson declined to comment on the lawmakers’ concerns about the investigation.

Norton last tried to sell the RFK land to D.C. in 2019. Grijalva said during that session of Congress that he would not allow the bill to move forward until the team changed its name, which Norton and local officials called on the team to do as well.

Though the name has changed, Norton said, “now we’ve got a new concern with the sexual harassment investigation” on the House Oversight and Reform Committee that Norton sits on. “And now the team owner is involved.”

“Particularly in this Congress, that is a very important concern,” Norton said.

The Commanders have not been particularly cooperative with the investigation. The NFL told the committee last month that the Commanders, not the league, were blocking the committee’s access to many documents related to the investigation of the team’s workplace.

On Feb. 3, the day after the team rebranded as the Commanders, a former team employee testified at a congressional roundtable that Snyder harassed her at a team dinner by putting his hand on her thigh and pressing her toward his limo. In a statement, Snyder apologized for his organization’s culture but called the claims made directly against him “outright lies.”

Norton said she has spoken to Grijalva about his concerns and is working to revise a draft of the bill to assuage them, but she declined to describe the revisions.

Even if Norton succeeded in shepherding the bill through Congress, the D.C. Council would need to approve using the site for the Commanders stadium. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said the 13 council members are sharply divided on what to do with the land — in part because they have not been briefed by Bowser’s administration about the latest developments. Mendelson said the mayor was “increasing the difficulty of getting council support.”

“D.C. needs the RFK site to meet our housing needs and to create a vibrant, mixed-use community, so we will keep pursuing the site regardless of whether a professional sports use is part of the future of the campus,” John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said in a statement.

While Mendelson said he does not oppose the District gaining control of the RFK land, he called the NFL’s releasing a report on the findings of its sexual harassment investigation “a precondition” for his potential support of the team returning to it. Other council members have also expressed trepidation about investing in a stadium that would be empty for the majority of the year.

In a recent interview with WUSA9, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) lamented that NFL stadiums are “poor economic drivers” and said the land should instead be used for green space and affordable housing. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who is running for mayor, has said he’s opposed to using public money on the football stadium but has been vocal about his desire to have the team back in the District.

The process has seemed to tax Bowser. On Monday, she told Bloomberg News that “at some point, I’m going to move on from” trying to bring the team to the District.

“I can’t win the political fight it would take to do it all,” she added, discussing the financial incentives Virginia and Maryland seemed prepared to offer.

Norton said that disagreements among D.C. Council members about what to do with the land should not affect the legislation, but she said the disagreements can be distracting. “I don’t want them to complicate things here in the Congress by inserting their own issues,” she said.

She said she has spoken both to Bowser and Mendelson, reminding them that their own debates about what to do with the land is not relevant to the legislation.

The team’s representatives have lobbied her office as well, Norton said, “but they’re in the wrong place, because all my bill does is give the District the right to acquire the land. So I told them they’ve got to go talk to the District.”

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.