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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Negotiations Over Native American Imagery Continue to Stall RFK Stadium Bill

  • A Montana senator seeks recognition of the late Blackfeet tribe leader who created the Washington Commanders’ former logo.
  • The bill would allow D.C. lawmakers to take over the site of the RFK Stadium, possibly for a new home of the Commanders.
Office of Sen. Steve Daines

For the Commanders, any potential return to their former home in Washington, D.C., continues to hinge on a Montana senator and the family of the man who created the team’s former logo.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill granting D.C. a 99-year lease for the land where the dilapidated RFK Stadium is still waiting to be demolished. There’s no guarantee that local lawmakers would take the next step—backing an effort to build a new NFL stadium on the land—but it would mark significant progress on a stadium site that has languished for a half decade. The lease in the House bill also says that the stadium site could be used for parks or commercial development.

The bill passed the House with rare bipartisan support, but it still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden before becoming law. It’s stuck in the Senate, where Sen. Steve Daines (R., Mont.), the ranking member of the National Parks Subcommittee, is threatening to block the bill.

Daines has said he is doing so on behalf of the descendants of Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, creator of the logo the team used from 1972 until it changed its name in 2020. Wetzel’s family is from Montana, and the Blackfeet tribe he was a member of is based in the state.

Daines, the Commanders, and the Wetzels are continuing to work out a deal. All three parties are walking the political tightrope of honoring Walter Wetzel’s contributions while not veering into divisive issues related to the use of Native American imagery. The NFL team dropped its old name and logo in 2020 after longstanding complaints that the name was a slur against Native Americans.

“We have been very pleased with the conversations we’ve had with the Commanders,” Ryan Wetzel, a grandson of the late Walter Wetzel, told Front Office Sports. “The three of us —meaning the Commanders, Daines’s office, and the Wetzel family—have made headway, and some steps being made that will please the D.C. community and the fan base.”

“There’s still a possibility for it to move if Daines is satisfied,” a Senate aide told FOS on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations. “It does have to get out of the committee first.”

A spokesperson for the Commanders declined to comment.

Senate National Parks Subcommittee chair Sen. Angus King (I., Maine) could move for a committee vote despite Daines’s opposition, but another Senate aide said King is much more likely to move forward with the bill if Daines backed off. That same aide told FOS that there’s some time for a resolution since the bill is unlikely to see any more action until after Thanksgiving.

During May’s hearing, Daines gave a presentation on the history of the former logo—one Walter Wetzel created using different portraits of Blackfeet chief White Calf. Wetzel, who died in 2003, was a Blackfeet tribal chairman and served a stint as president of the National Congress of American Indians. 

“This logo wasn’t a caricature,” Ryan Wetzel says. “It was an actual person and it was brought to the franchise as a profile of pride for Native American communities. I’m very pleased with the conversations we’ve had with the Commanders and their willingness to help out. We’re still looking at something permanent so this isn’t forgotten or erased.”

Both Daines and Ryan Wetzel are on the record that they aren’t asking for the old name—dropped by former Commanders owner Dan Snyder as pressure mounted from FedEx and others before the 2020 season—to return.

“Our focus is the logo,” Wetzel says. “I can tell you this, there is division amongst my own family with that name. But somehow, some way, we’d like to honor the logo.”

That’s the prickly part. Multiple NFL sources told FOS that neither the Commanders nor the league have any interest in allowing the old name, and there’s resistance to bringing the old logo back, even in a throwback-type manner. Additionally, the trademark is owned by the Commanders.

One of the proposals would be to transfer the ownership of the logo to a nonprofit organization that would use monies generated from the logo to support Native American causes, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. That proposal, however, could be a big ask of the Commanders. New owner Josh Harris is seeking a clean break from the Snyder era, which includes the team’s former use of Native American imagery. 

There have been talks about recognition of Walter Wetzel that’d take place during Native American History Month during a home game each November and a plaque at Commanders Field, the team’s current home in Maryland, the same two sources with knowledge of the discussions told FOS

Ryan Wetzel says the team’s bringing back the logo—possibly to coincide with another rebrand by the franchise—is “a far-fetched dream,” but he added that conversations with the Commanders have continued to be productive over a larger recognition of his grandfather. 

And once the Wetzel family is satisfied, Daines is expected to back off his opposition. 

“I feel confident that we could come to some form of resolution on some of the ideas that can honor this logo and my family,” Ryan Wetzel says. 

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