A new Football Stadium for DC? Just say “No”

Cover image produced by Christina D.

NOW that two obstacles to the Washington Commanders’ moving back to DC have been removed – the changing of their formerly racist name and the departure of toxic former owner Daniel Snyder – many in the DC political and business establishment assume it’s only a matter of time before the team reclaims its birthright; that is, the land on which Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium now sits.

Not RFK itself. The vacant, 62-year-old hulk is in the process of being torn down, but a shiny new stadium on the same site – where East Capitol Street meets the Anacostia River, and where for a third of a century Washington’s football team thrilled many a fan as it won three NFL championships. As of March 2023, it’s been reported that demolition of the old stadium has begun...

RFK's stadium and location. Photo of the RFK Stadium site taken in 2018. Sourced from Entertainment.dc.gov

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is leading the charge for a stadium, although she promises it will be different from the old one – no longer a beached whale in a sea of parking but rather surrounded by retail, affordable housing, recreation facilities and other developments more useful to the community than a stadium used by a football team less than 10 times a year.

One development to advance the construction of the RFK site is a bill in Congress, introduced in July by Rep. James Comer (R-KY.) and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, that would extend the District’s lease on the stadium site for 99 years and give the city a free hand in developing it. On September 20, the House Oversight Committee approved the bill, sending it to the House floor for a vote.

The DC Council is unanimously supportive of the Comer-Norton bill because of the control it would give the District over the site but is sharply divided over whether to build a stadium there. Washington Post queried the 13 councilmembers for a July 29 article and found five open to a stadium and three opposed or leaning in opposition, with the rest noncommittal or not responding. The Post noted that this is a significant shift to the pro-stadium position since a year ago, when eight members expressed strong opposition. But that was when Snyder was still in charge and stories about the team’s culture of sexual harassment and financial malfeasance were making headlines, and before new owner Josh Harris began his charm offensive.

(Of DSA endorsed members of the Council, Zachary Parker of Ward 5 remained non-committal on the question, and Janeese Lewis George of Ward 4 declined to answer, though she oposed the stadium last year.)

Aerial view of a FedEx Field, the Washington Commander's current site located in Landover, Maryland. Sourced through Wikipedia Commons.

Leading the Council opposition to the stadium is Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who speaks for many East Capitol Hill residents in opposing the stadium. As early as 2019, activists living near RFK were organizing to block a new stadium on the site, citing the pressing needs of the neighborhood and the city and the certainty that the District would pay much, if not all, of the cost of building a new stadium.

Bowser and advocates of a stadium point to the economic development spurred by Capital One Area (built largely with private money) and Nationals Park (city-funded) and the tax revenue and neighborhood revitalization they generated. But Capital One is used at least 82 times a year for basketball and hockey, plus extra dates for concerts and other events, while the Nationals use their park a minimum of 81 times a year, with other events filling out part of the calendar. Of course, the District or whoever oversees a new football stadium would market the facility for dates beyond football, but with only eight assured games that leaves a lot of dates to fill. Look at the history of RFK and the team’s current stadium in Landover: Neither one generated development or revitalization, only traffic on game days.

While the Comer-Norton bill puts the building of a stadium on the table, it also could be a boon to opponents. It would enable DC residents to lobby politicians responsible to them – the mayor and DC councilmembers – rather than rest their fate in the dismissive hands of members of Congress, who could scarcely care what DC residents think. If for nothing more than reasons of pure democracy, the bill should pass and control of the site be transferred into the hands of those affected by it – the residents of the District.

Local control will, among other things, give local activists more leverage over the site’s development. They could demand that the city prioritize affordable housing, recreation and other public benefits and that it not be handed over to developers for luxury housing, high-end retail and other uses that would generate profit at the expense of community needs and lead to gentrification that would push the mostly Black residents out of the neighborhood.

A separate argument against DC, or any other jurisdiction, subsidizing football is the increasing knowledge of the disabling injuries that the game causes, especially head injuries. In one study of the brains of deceased NFL players, 99 percent of them showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head that often leads to dementia. However entertaining, Football is the 21st-century equivalent of gladiatorial combat and doesn’t merit taxpayer encouragement.

Citizen pressure against Washington’s football team, quickened by the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, eventually led to the abandonment of the old racist name and stereotypical Native American iconography. It also can keep the heat on Mayor Bowser and councilmembers to oppose any giveaways to the Commanders. If that means the team winds up moving elsewhere, that will be only to the city’s gain.

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