Who knows how many crimes the Washington Commanders committed in the course of the behavior that led a congressional committee to tattle on them to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday? It’s not a rhetorical question. Sincerely, who knows?
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform—which sent the letter to FTC chair Lina Khan—does not exactly know, because it inserted multiple hedges in saying the team “may have engaged in a troubling, long-running, and potentially unlawful pattern of financial conduct.” It all sounds fraud-adjacent and would run counter to NFL rules on revenue-sharing between teams. Maybe it will result in serious consequences for a man who is adept at avoiding those. Maybe not.
Commanders owner Daniel Snyder has expensive lawyers who will spend many billable hours over many years ensuring the rest of us learn as little as possible about whatever schemes Snyder’s team may have gotten into over the years. The committee cites testimony and documents from a former Commanders vice president of sales and customer service who describes a wide range of financial jackassery. Much of it is garden-variety fare, a billionaire franchise owner bilking every red cent out of paying customers he is forced to pretend to care about. For instance, the team that maintained a more-than-likely bogus season-ticket waiting list to create the impression of demand may have also withheld millions of dollars in deposits from—wait for it—season-ticket holders, as well as selling tickets at one price and reporting them at another. The Commanders recently issued a “categorical” denial of “any suggestion of financial impropriety of any kind at any time,” so it would be a real bummer if it turned out that Snyder, of all people, sanctioned such things.
This saga’s zesty twist, amid a morass of stories about NFL owners ripping off their fans and anyone else who lives in their vicinity, is that this one is not all a matter of Snyder against his own team’s supporters. Instead, it is something a lot more fun: The former team VP, Jason Friedman, accuses Snyder of doing something much graver than taking money from fans. Instead, Friedman told Congress, Snyder kept money from the rest of the NFL.
The NFL mandates that home teams send 40 percent of their ticket revenue into a league pot, which the league in turn distributes to visiting teams. Friedman, with help from old emails and accounting documents, walked Congress through what he said was a scheme by the Commanders (who were then known by their racial slur name) to shelter money from that pot and keep it in the team’s (and therefore its owner’s) pocket.
To make that happen, the committee says the team “apparently” engaged in a scheme that sounds … almost, to be honest, a little bit slick? Just almost.
It says that team executives appear to have taken ticket money from Commanders home games and marked it as having come from other events at the team’s FedEx Field: a Kenny Chesney concert in one case, a Notre Dame–Navy game in another. Friedman told the committee that the team kept “two sets of books”: one for the league (with that slice of Commanders ticket revenue attributed elsewhere) and one for the team’s top leadership, for “I believe just Mr. Snyder, actually, and the people in his inner circle maybe,” Friedman testified, “that shows what we actually did.” Team executives appear to have called the money in question “juice,” and Friedman says he did false accounting on more than $162,000 of it after an executive told him to direct it away from Commanders ticket proceeds and toward the Notre Dame–Navy game. To pull it off without detection, Friedman says, the team charged $55 for tickets that it listed in its book for the league at $44 and sent the difference across 14,760 sold tickets to the pile for the college game at FedEx Field. An email he shared with the committee appears to confirm his exact description of events, with team executive Stephen Choi replying, “The juice goes to the Navy vs ND game.” That money then, Friedman explained, wasn’t subject to revenue-sharing with the rest of the NFL.
It sounds like a good effort! Not a great effort, because Congress just received testimony about it and told the FTC and news media about it. But there have been worse schemes than the one alleged here. No matter how any number of government or private investigations into the Commanders turn out, we can safely say two things about the franchise Snyder runs.
One is that a whole lot of people who work for this team seem to wind up testifying to Congress (to say nothing of what they might tell the NFL’s own investigators) about miserable experiences in the workplace. Several women have alleged sexual harassment while they worked for the team, and one has made a claim against Snyder himself to this same committee. Snyder denies it. The team paid $1.6 million to settle a different sexual misconduct claim against Snyder in 2009, the Washington Post reported in 2020. Whatever crimes Snyder has or hasn’t committed, there are plenty of rich people in the world who would be happy to own Washington’s NFL team and are not the subject of such withering feedback from employees.
Additionally, the Commanders should email less. This franchise might not be a great deal different from every other NFL team, and those teams might have also let plenty of garbage pile up in their inboxes over the years. But in the case of this team, there is quite a lot of it, as we learned when its internal emails surfaced in an NFL investigation into the sexual harassment claims and led to the end of Jon Gruden as an NFL institution. It’s a public benefit that this franchise’s internal deliberations are getting aired out. Some free legal advice, though: If you are the Commanders, it is best to follow the Stringer Bell rule and not take notes on anything that might be construed as a criminal conspiracy or at least one to evade NFL rules. It is especially best not to send those notes out electronically. This medium is causing Snyder’s team a lot of trouble.
The past few years have seen a constant drip of stories about Snyder and the Commanders that range from outraging to embarrassing. A popular refrain with each drop is to wonder if this might finally be the one that prompts the NFL to force Snyder out of its ranks of ownership—not that selling a team for billions of dollars is much of a severe punishment for anything.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has been clear about his belief that the league could force a sale if enough other owners wanted it. But he’s been just as clear that he lacks any interest in doing anything unpleasant to Snyder, whom he said had been “held accountable” after the league-commissioned investigation into the team’s workplace culture. How that accountability manifested was left unanswered, and Goodell didn’t provide more information.
Snyder’s fellow owners have in the past liked him more than the general public ever seemed to. Jerry Jones gave him public backing as recently as last November. Maybe a confirmed revelation that Snyder was keeping dollars from other owners would change that, but it just as easily might not. And if that wouldn’t get him booted from that world, why would anything?