Will D.C. Readskins Stay or Go? Team Travel Is a Tough Call

This summer politics gives way to talk of Redskins football, fans, and fast dealmaking - a report from jilted Washington

THE other side of Washington - the place where people live, not just the granite and marble backdrops for television soundbites - has had it pretty rough: the murder capital of the nation; the former mayor busted for drug abuse; the losing battle for statehood.

And now, to add insult to injury, the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins team is defecting to northern Virginia.

The steam rising off the nation's capital this summer is more than just the ordinary cut-it-with-a-knife humidity. From hamburger-flipping short-order cooks to State Department stiffs, there's a sense that the stadium deal is sacrilege.

"It would be a hurtful thing to lose your last professional team and have Robert F. Kennedy Stadium sitting over there a lonely beacon of what once was," says Frank Bolden, a former high school football coach and an appointee to the D.C. citizen's advisory board helping to plan for new stadium construction here.

"More than the loss of money, it's a loss to the kids of this city - the positive image of the Redskins players was a star to hang [their hopes] on."

Struck in secret and sprung on a totally surprised public this month, the deal between the billionaire Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder follows the national trend for professional sports teams to leave urban areas for greener pastures in suburbia.

Plans are for the team to move from 55,000-seat RFK Stadium, the National Football League's smallest, into a new, 78,000-seat, open-air stadium in time for the 1994 football season.

Financial details of the deal remain secret, but the Washington Post reports that Cooke will spend $160 million to build the stadium and the state of Virginia will give him land and spend $130 million on infrastructure around the site at Potomac Yard, an old rail yard just south of National Airport.

Most stadiums in the NFL are built with public funds, and profits are shared with the public. But in the Redskins-Virginia deal Cooke will build the stadium with his own funds and keep all ticket, parking and concession revenue, according to the Washington Post.

The lavish and secret nature of the deal, the hurt feelings in the district, and the local, state and federal hoops to be jumped through have set in motion what promises to be spectacular political sport.

The players are colorful: The first woman mayor of Washington, the nation's first black governor, the high-school-drop-out-turned-tycoon Cooke, and the Redskins fans, who remain loyal even though most stand no hope of ever getting a seat at a game. (Season tickets have been sold out since 1966 and the 45,000 names on the waiting list will be reduced by only 12,500.)

Long-running negotiations to build a new stadium at the RFK site were abruptly short-circuited by Cooke's deal with Wilder.

Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and D.C. officials talk as if the deal is a ruse by Cooke, legendary for his dealmaking, to gain leverage in the Washington negotiations. Kelly's whole political future may well rest on this single point of district pride, says a local pollster.

The approval needed from local, state, and federal agencies is also in jeopardy..

Virginians in Alexandria are miffed they weren't consulted in the secret negotiations. District officials on the Metro subway authority are inclined to use their veto power over a proposed subway station at the new stadium. Federal authorities are already questioning the wisdom of a stadium in the flight path of a major airport as well as how the rail yard soil, reportedly poisoned by arsenic and toxins, will be handled.

Meanwhile, Maurice Contee, a lunchcounter grillman with a different billed-cap message for every Redskins occasion, says he "owes" the settlement costs on his house, his furniture, and his 64-inch screen television to the Redskins, on whom he bets on every game.

The new location will "take a lot of the fun out of it," says Mr. Contee. But as long as the games go on, he'll see them on his 64-inch screen.

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