The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unless Daniel Snyder changes Redskins’ name, RFK site is off the table, officials say

RFK Stadium is scheduled to be razed in 2021. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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There is no scenario in which Daniel Snyder will be able to build a new Washington Redskins stadium on the federally owned RFK Stadium site unless he changes the team’s name.

That was the unequivocal message from Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives; D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio; and U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, in separate telephone interviews with The Washington Post on Wednesday.

“I call on Dan Snyder once again to face that reality, since he does still desperately want to be in the nation’s capital,” Norton said. “He has got a problem he can’t get around — and he particularly can’t get around it today, after the George Floyd killing.”

Said Falcicchio: “There is no viable path, locally or federally, for the Washington football team to return to Washington, D.C., without first changing the team name.”

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Grijalva, whose committee oversees the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, which owns the land, called the prospect of a Redskins stadium on the site a “non-starter,” both for him and the Democratic caucus, given the objections to what he called a “racist nickname” as well as strong views about how to honor the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, who championed social justice and inclusion, in any development of the site.

“The time [for the name] has ended,” Grijalva said. “There is no way to justify it. You either step into this century or you don’t. It’s up to the owner of the team to do that.”

In March 2019, Norton introduced a bill calling on the federal government, which owns the ­190-acre tract known as the RFK Campus, to sell the property at fair market value to the city. Under her bill, the RFK Memorial Stadium Campus Conveyance Act, the mayor, D.C. Council and residents would decide how to develop the city’s largest parcel of undeveloped land, whether for affordable housing, parks or recreation opportunities.

Norton said Wednesday that she has known “for a very long time” that the bill — the essential first step in the construction of an NFL stadium — couldn’t get through Congress given Democrats’ objections to any use by a team named “Redskins.”

“Even before we were in the [House] majority, Democrats railed against the notion of a team coming back with a name that defiles some Americans,” Norton said.

Wednesday’s comments don’t represent a threat, the officials made clear, as much as a statement of fact. Alternatively, the same fact could be expressed affirmatively: Snyder has a clear path to building an NFL stadium on the RFK Campus if he changes the name.

Many consider the team’s name a racial slur. Snyder, who has owned the franchise since May 1999, insists it is an honorific, one he has said he will never change.

Neither he nor the team replied to a request for comment Wednesday.

Falcicchio’s statement takes one step further an acknowledgment by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), via a June 12 interview with the Team 980, that she feels Snyder should change the name.

“I think it’s past time for the team to deal with what offends so many people,” Bowser said. “And this is a great franchise with a great history that’s beloved in Washington. And it deserves a name that reflects the affection that we’ve built for the team.”

Although Bowser has made her personal discomfort with the name clear in recent years, she backed construction of a new Redskins stadium at RFK, declaring “Bring it home!” in a speech she delivered at the team’s preseason luncheon in August 2018, hosted at Washington’s Marriott Marquis, as a delighted Snyder looked on.

Snyder called the speech “great” and echoed her sentiment. “[Washington] is a special place, and she’s right that it’s the only sports team that’s not in the city,” Snyder said. “It’s special to me. I have great memories there.”

In 2014, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to change the team’s name.

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The long-running debate over the name has gained new currency in the wake of the May 25 death of Floyd while in police custody. Amid calls for racial justice and an end to systemic racism, some cities are removing statues and monuments to the Confederacy, while corporations are retiring logos and names rooted in racist tropes.

Norton said she found it significant that D.C. officials now acknowledge, via Falcicchio’s statement, that Congress will not approve any sale or transfer of the RFK land to the city if there is any chance it could benefit the local NFL team with its current name.

“The city obviously would like the team back,” Norton said. “But it’s important that [Falcicchio] used the word ‘federally’ — meaning that they now recognize that there is no hope unless this name is changed.”

The 190-acre RFK campus is owned by the National Park Service and controlled by the city through 2038 under a lease that limits its use to “stadium purposes” or “recreational facilities, open space, or public outdoor recreation opportunities,” precluding commercial development.

Since the Redskins abandoned RFK Stadium for what is now known as FedEx Field in Landover, Md., after the 1996 season, the old venue and adjacent property along the Anacostia River have fallen into disrepair. Its decline has escalated since D.C. United played its last match there in October 2017. The stadium is scheduled to be razed in 2021.

Despite the mayor’s clear discomfort with the team name, echoed by some D.C. Council members, the Redskins have proceeded behind the scenes as if they could outmaneuver any political resistance, according to two people familiar with Snyder’s thinking.

While the RFK site is Snyder’s first choice, according to those people, the team has kept alive possible interest in building the stadium at Maryland’s National Harbor or Virginia’s Dulles corridor, whether as bargaining chips or genuine fallback plans.

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According to the same two people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, former Redskins president Bruce Allen assured Snyder that the team name would not be an insurmountable obstacle to acquiring the RFK site. Allen projected confidence that he could get the land deal done via his political connections — at the local level to longtime D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who resigned in January over ethics violations, and via his personal clout at the federal level. Allen’s brother George represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2007.

Before control of the House of Representatives shifted from Republicans to Democrats in January 2019, Bruce Allen worked with congressional allies to get access to the RFK site by slipping a provision in a complex spending bill. The process, which failed because the spending bill was deferred, would have sidestepped some public debate over whether an NFL stadium was the ideal use for the property.

Snyder fired Allen on Dec. 30 after a decade in which the team tallied a 62-100-1 record and saw its season ticket base erode, its game-day attendance plunge and its front office vilified in the process.