Commanders’ stadium pursuit stumbles as Virginia, D.C. officials pull plug on negotiations


The Washington Commanders’ pursuit of a replacement for the aging FedEx Field suffered two big setbacks Thursday as both Virginia and District officials tabled efforts to build a new home in their respective jurisdictions for the scandal-plagued NFL franchise.

In Virginia, the state legislature pulled the plug on a bill that would have paved the way to luring the Commanders after two lawmakers who sponsored the legislation confirmed the General Assembly will not take up the bill this year.

Delegate Barry D. Knight, a Virginia Beach Republican who sponsored the House bill, told The Washington Times the piece of legislation won’t be brought back up for the rest of the year, though he didn’t rule out it being revisited in 2023. State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Fairfax Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill, said there were too many issues to currently proceed.

And a majority of the D.C. Council on Thursday voiced opposition to building the Washington Commanders a stadium on the old RFK Stadium site in the District, a blow to the team’s pursuit to return to the city.

Seven members of the 13-person council sent a letter to Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, who has worked to introduce a bill that would allow the city to buy the site from the federal government.

The council members wrote in the letter that they do not oppose the city’s pursuit of the federal land, but made clear the Commanders aren’t welcome.

The news comes as controversies mount for the Commanders. A day earlier, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio apologized for referring to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as a “dust-up.” Del Rio’s comment, made in a press conference in an attempt to defend a tweet about the subject, led to a wave of backlash.

“I believe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mr. Knight said, referring to Del Rio. “Because [Mr. Saslaw] and I had some conversations and recognized they weren’t helping themselves every time the news broke on some of these issues.”

Even before Del Rio’s comment, momentum appeared to be shifting in the Virginia General Assembly.

Despite separate stadium bills passing with broad bipartisan support in February, lawmakers opted to delay a vote on a reworked version of the bill last month when the state budget was passed in a special session.

A few officials came out publicly announcing their reversal of the project, including Sen. Chap Petersen — a Fairfax Democrat who blasted the Commanders by saying he no longer saw them as a “viable NFL franchise.”

The reversals happened shortly after the Commanders bought an option to acquire 200 acres of land in Woodbridge, a potential site for the stadium. Instead of the purchase being the piece that persuaded lawmakers to pass the bill, officials expressed their concerns about the Commanders targeting an already traffic-heavy area lacking reliable public transportation.

Other issues were then raised, such as the ongoing investigations into the team and owner Dan Snyder. There are at least four active probes into Mr. Snyder from Congress, the NFL, Virginia’s attorney general and the District’s attorney general regarding allegations of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties.

The Commanders have denied the claims, but Mr. Saslaw cited them when explaining his decision to abandon the legislation for the year. Mr. Knight also said he had doubts about whether the deal would be economically beneficial for the state.

“You’ve got the attorney general’s thing, you’ve got all the congressional stuff, other issues to be answered,” Mr. Saslaw told The Associated Press.

“This thing never had the momentum to assume that it was going to pass,” Mr. Knight said.

The Commanders said in a statement they supported the legislature’s decision to “more deeply examine the issue.” The team added it would continue to engage with “stakeholders across the commonwealth” to share its vision of a stadium, which the team called a “remarkable economic development opportunity.”

The team declined to comment on the letter sent from members of the D.C. Council. In the letter, council members wrote that “study after study shows there is no economic benefit for cities” that subsidize professional sports teams. Council Member Charles Allen of Ward 6, who posted the letter publicly, tweeted the council “unequivocally” would not support the Commanders for the RFK site, adding “the debate is done.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told The Associated Press the letter does not represent a final decision, but does take the site out of consideration for now. Mr. Mendelson was not one of the seven to sign the letter.

The Commanders had already faced an uphill battle to secure the RFK site because of Congress’ control of the land, although the team has the support of D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser.

With the efforts from Virginia and the District sidelined, Maryland remains the only locality seemingly willing to partner with the Commanders. In April, Gov. Larry Hogan signed a measure that would make up to $400 million in bonds available to develop the area around FedEx Field. The money, however, would not be used to directly support a new stadium, and officials have said the development would happen regardless of whether the Commanders stay at the site.

The Commanders’ lease expires in 2027.

As for Virginia, Mr. Knight said there’s a possibility that the General Assembly could revisit the stadium bill in January when the next session begins.

“And then, it’s got a tall hill to climb,” he said.

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