This goes back decades.
The Redskins started to look for a new stadium site back in the early 1990s. The team was on the outer orbit of its glory years, seizing three Super Bowl titles in 1983, 1988 and 1992. But there was concern about Redskins’ home field, RFK Stadium. RFK Stadium (originally named “DC Stadium”) was the first “modern,” circular, multi-purpose stadium built in the U.S. for baseball and football. RFK’s design later gave rise to imitators such as Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
Washington D.C. 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 RFK Stadium to host baseball and football made it smaller than some NFL venues. And with the Redskins serving as the (burgundy and) gold standard for NFL franchises for more than a decade, the team hoped to build a larger, football-only arena.
The team considered multiple sites around the Washington region. “Potomac Yard,” an abandoned and polluted railyard straddling Arlington County and the city of Alexandria in Northern, Va., was long considered to be the frontrunner for a new site. But in 1992, the City of Alexandria balked at the proposal, forcing then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to look elsewhere for new digs.
Enter a tract of unused, federal land adjacent to the Redskins current home, slightly northeast of RFK Stadium.
The team was interested in this site in D.C., because it was in D.C. 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 constructed just steps from County Stadium, home to the Brewers. What is now called Guaranteed Rate Field was erected behind old Comiskey Park, home turf of the Chicago White Sox.
Cooke hoped to build a $206 million, 78,000-seat stadium in what was one of RFK’s parking lots.
But this is where things got complicated for the Redskins.
Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell always cut a different figure in the halls of Congress.
Campbell served in the House as a Democrat, then switched to the GOP a few years after his election 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; fashioned traditional, Native American jewelry on the side; and eschewed neckties, de rigueur for Senate attire, in favor of bolos when appearing on the floor. If you were a reporter and looking for Campbell, you could always tell if the senator was in the Capitol if you knew where to look–outside the Senate Carriage Entrance to see if Campbell parked his Harley-Davidson Softail nearby.
Campbell competed as a member of the U.S. Judo team at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Years later, while serving in the House, a would-be mugger accosted Campbell as he walked home after late night votes. The mugger picked the wrong person to mess with.
And, as fate would have it, the Redskins picked the wrong senator to mess with, too.
“The name `Redskins’ is highly offensive to Native Americans because it conjures up bad stereotypical images of Indians,” Campbell said in the summer of 1993. “Since Mr. Cooke has steadfastly refused to change the name of the team and he wants to build his new stadium on federally controlled land, we want to have some say as to what conditions will be imposed on its tenants.”
Repurposing the federal tract of land adjacent to RFK Stadium would likely require congressional sign-off. And, Campbell threatened to block such a development unless the team changed its name.
Cooke countered that there was “nothing in the world” wrong with the team name. The club argued the Redskins moniker served as an homage to the traditions and strength of Native Americans.
Campbell drafted a bill barring the RFK parking lot be used “by any person or organization exploiting any racial or ethnic group or using nomenclature that includes a reference to real or alleged physical characteristics of Native Americans or other groups of human beings.”
So, Cooke, dismissed by Virginia, D.C. and the Senate, went about constructing a stadium in suburban Maryland. Many thought Cooke’s move was a negotiating ploy.
It wasn’t. The Redskins name stuck. Cooke finally earned approval to get his new stadium in Landover, Md. Cooke called the new location Raljohn, a combination of Cooke’s sons, Ralph and John. The Redskins played their final game at RFK on December 22, 1996, defeating the archrival Dallas Cowboys 37-10.
The Redskins moved into what initially Jack Kent Cooke Stadium– now FedEx Field– for the 1997 campaign. Cooke, who hoped to move his team to a new venue by 1995, never got to see the new arena. He died in the spring of 1997. Dan Snyder took control of the team and the Redskins lost their luster both on and off the field.
Snyder famously told USA Today that he would “never” change the name of the team. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”
Just as Cooke wrestled with Campbell, Snyder soon encountered another foe from the west: former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid undertook a pet project during the final years of his service on Capitol Hill. A federal court cancelled the team’s trademark in 2014. That seemed to invigorate Reid. Rather than tussling with Republicans, the Nevada Democrat would routinely come to the Senate floor to personally blast Snyder and implore him to change the team name. Reid described the club as “a racist franchise,” even hoping for the team to lose games.
Considering the team’s fates of late, the Redskins probably didn’t need any intercessions from Reid.
After the “Deflategate” controversy with the New England Patriots, Reid beseeched NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to “act as swiftly and decisively changing the name of the DC team as he did about not enough air in a football.”
Reid and other Senate Democrats crafted legislation to end the NFL’s tax exempt status if it didn’t order a change in the team’s name.
“It is not right that the National Football League continues to denigrate an entire population,” said Reid in 2015, noting the 27 Native American tribes he represented in Nevada. “Every time they hear this name is a sad reminder of a long tradition of racism and bigotry.”
Reid predicted that eventually “the name will change.”
The team says that’s now on the table.
The Redskins have shrunk the size of FedEx field over the years. It once ballooned to a staggering 91,000 seats, the largest seating capacity in the NFL. But the stadium’s now receded to 82,000, and the team struggles to fill it up. Parking and transportation to and from the stadium have been a nightmare since the beginning. Fans regard FedEx Field as 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’s used RFK Stadium in years. The Washington Nationals played there for a few seasons after the Expos moved from Montreal in 2005. But the Nats have had their own park since 2008. D.C. United played at RFK from its inception in 1996 through 2017. But the soccer club now has its own pitch at nearby Audi Field.
Once regal RFK stadium is now a dilapidated shell of itself. It’s due to be razed next year.
That’s why there’s chatter that the team’s old site may be the perfect spot for a new arena.
Washington, D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Murial Bowser and the city’s non-voting representative in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, would love to have the local football team back in the District of Columbia. Norton would like the team to play at the RFK location – if they change the name.
Norton says she would author a bill to retool the RFK site for construction of a new stadium if the franchise abandons the current nickname.