Gridlock over the gridiron: The long struggle between Congress and the Washington Redskins


There is a long and messy history between Congress and the Washington Redskins.

It goes back decades.

The Redskins began looking for a new stadium site in the early 1990s. The team was in the outer orbit of its glory years, capturing three Super Bowl titles in 1983, 1988 and 1992. But the Redskins home ground, RFK Stadium, was cause for concern. The RFK Stadium (originally called “DC Stadium”) was the first multi-purpose “modern” circular stadium built in the United States for baseball and football. The RFK design then gave birth to imitators such as the Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, the Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and the Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

Washington DC has lacked a Major League baseball team since the second iteration of the Washington Senators decamped from the capital to become the Texas Rangers at the end of the 1971 season. The configuration of the RFK Stadium to host baseball and soccer made it smaller than some NFL sites. And with the Redskins serving as the gold standard (burgundy and) for NFL franchises for more than a decade, the team hoped to build a larger, football-only arena.

The team examined several sites in the Washington area. “Potomac Yard”, an abandoned and polluted railyard straddling Arlington County and the city of Alexandria in northern Virginia, has long been considered the leader of a new site. But in 1992, the city of Alexandria backed away from the proposal, forcing the owner of the Redskins of the day, Jack Kent Cooke, to look elsewhere for new excavations.


Enter an unused federal parcel of land adjacent to the current Redskins house, slightly northeast of the RFK stadium.

The team was interested in this site in DC because it was in DC and practically up the street from RFK. Fans could still use the same metro, the Stadium / Armory stop, to get to the games. And, like many teams, the easiest place to build a new stadium is right next to the old one. Miller Park in Milwaukee was built just steps from the county stadium, home of the Brewers. What is now called the guaranteed rate field was erected behind the old Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox.

Cooke hoped to build a $ 206 million, 78,000-seat stadium in one of RFK’s parking lots.

But that’s where things got complicated for the Redskins.

Former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell has always made a different appearance in the halls of Congress.

Campbell served in the House as a Democrat, then joined the GOP a few years after being elected to the Senate. A member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Campbell was the only Native American in Congress at the time.

Campbell wore his hair in a salt and pepper ponytail; traditional Native American jewelry shaped on the side; and avoided ties, de rigueur for Senate clothing, in favor of bolos when they appear on the ground. If you were a journalist looking for Campbell, you could always tell if the Senator was on Capitol Hill if you knew where to look – outside the entrance to the Senate coach to see if Campbell had parked his Harley-Davidson Softail in proximity.

Campbell competed as a member of the American judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Years later, while serving in the House, a potential assailant approached Campbell as he returned home after the late evening votes. The abuser chose the wrong person to play with.

And, as fate would have it, the Redskins also chose the wrong senator to play with.


“The name” Redskins “is very offensive to Native Americans because it evokes bad stereotypical images of Indians,” said Campbell in the summer of 1993. “Since Mr. Cooke has firmly refused to change the name of the team and he wants to build his new stadium on land under federal control, we want to have a say in the conditions that will be imposed on his tenants. ”

The reallocation of the federal parcel of land adjacent to the RFK stadium would likely require congressional approval. And, Campbell has threatened to block such a development unless the team changes its name.

Cooke replied that there was “nothing in the world” wrong with the team’s name. The club argued that the Redskins nickname was a tribute to the traditions and strength of the Native Americans.

Campbell drafted a bill prohibiting RFK parking from being used “by any person or organization exploiting a racial or ethnic group or using a nomenclature including a reference to the actual or supposed physical characteristics of Native Americans or other groups of human beings ”

Cooke, rejected by Virginia, DC and the Senate, set out to build a stadium in the suburbs of Maryland. Many believed that Cooke’s decision was a negotiating ploy.

It was not. The Redskins’ name remained. Cooke finally got approval to get his new stadium in Landover, Maryland. Cooke called the new location Raljohn, a combination of the sons of Cooke, Ralph and John. The Redskins played their last game at the RFK on December 22, 1996, beating the Dallas Cowboys 37-10.

The Redskins moved into what was originally Jack Kent Cooke Stadium – now FedEx Field – for the 1997 campaign. Cooke, who hoped to move his team to a new location in 1995, has never been able to see the new arena. He died in the spring of 1997. Dan Snyder took control of the team and the Redskins lost their brilliance both on and off the field.


Snyder told USA Today that he would “never” change the team’s name. “It’s so simple. NEVER – you can use caps. ”

Just as Cooke struggled with Campbell, Snyder quickly encountered another enemy from the west: former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Reid undertook a pet project in the final years of his service at Capitol Hill. A federal court canceled the team’s trademark in 2014. It seemed to reinvigorate Reid. Rather than quarreling with the Republicans, the Nevada Democrat regularly went to the Senate to personally blast Snyder and beg him to change the name of the team. Reid described the club as “a racist franchise,” even hoping the team would lose games.

Given the fate of the team recently, the Redskins probably didn’t need Reid’s intercessions.

After the “Deflategate” controversy with the New England Patriots, Reid pleaded with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, “to act as quickly and decisively as the name of the DC team, because he was not doing not enough air in a football ”.

Reid and other Senate Democrats have drafted legislation to end the NFL’s tax-exempt status if it does not order a team name change.

“It is not fair that the National Football League should continue to disparage an entire population,” Reid said in 2015, noting the 27 Native American tribes he represented in Nevada. “Whenever they hear this name, it is a sad reminder of a long tradition of racism and bigotry.”

Reid predicted that eventually “the name will change. ”

The team says it’s now on the table.

The Redskins have reduced the size of the FedEx field over the years. It has already peaked at 91,000 seats, the largest capacity in the NFL. But the stadium has now dropped to 82,000, and the team is struggling to fill it. Parking and transportation to and from the stadium has been a nightmare from the start. Fans consider FedEx Field one of the worst in the NFL.

And so the Redskins are again looking for a new home – potentially in the District of Columbia.


No one has used the RFK Stadium for years. The Washington Nationals played there for a few seasons after the Montreal Expos left in 2005. But the Nats have had their own fleet since 2008. DC United played at the RFK from its inception in 1996 until 2017. But the club soccer now has its own field near Audi Field.

Formerly, the royal stadium of the RFK is now a dilapidated shell. It should be shaved next year.

This is why there is gossip that the old team site could be the perfect place for a new arena.

The Democratic Mayor of Washington, DC, Murial Bowser, and the city’s non-voting congressman, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat, would love to have the local soccer team back in the District of Columbia. Norton would like the team to play at location RFK – if they change their name.

Norton says it would draft a bill to reorganize the RFK site for the construction of a new stadium if the franchise abandons the current nickname.


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