Sports

A Villain Too Villainous Even for the NFL

Everyone hates the league’s owners. The owners all hate Dan Snyder. Will he be forced to sell the Commanders?

Dan Snyder, in a Washington Commanders jacket, speaks at a podium as his wife Tanya Snyder stands behind him in a matching jacket
Snyder’s colleagues, it seems, have had about enough of him. Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports

The new news about Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder is not that he is unlikable. That is old hat. Every NFL owner has at least a little bit of Bond villain in him or, in a few cases, her. One does not assume ownership of an entire day of the American week while remaining a boy scout.

Snyder stands apart, though. For this entire century, he has owned a franchise that used to win a lot of games, and he has remade it in his image, which is to say: very poorly. Some of the worst things about the franchise weren’t directly Snyder’s fault. He didn’t build FedEx Field, the inconveniently located stadium that smells like pee and makes for one of the least pleasant gameday experiences in sports. He didn’t name the team after a racial slur, though he smugly defended that moniker for years before a racial justice reckoning in 2020 made the public relations of it untenable. But Snyder has painted a bad picture of the NFL all on his own. His franchise has faced allegations that it fostered a hostile workplace in a host of ways, including at least one recent harassment claim against Snyder and another that the team paid $1.6 million to settle in 2009, the Washington Post reported. Snyder’s former top lieutenant, Bruce Allen, was all over the misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic email chains that led to coach Jon Gruden’s ouster from the Las Vegas Raiders. Washington restructured its cheerleading squad after some of the women said the team had subjected them to a parade of sexual harassments. Anything on that list that didn’t stem from Snyder happened under his authority, sometimes over years.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

All of that makes Snyder an appealing target for whatever forces are aligned against him at any given moment, whether that’s disgruntled fans, critical media, or otherwise. But if he is routed from his perch as owner of the Commanders, all that’s come before will amount to one big aggravating factor rather than the main catalyst. Instead, Snyder might—might!—be on the outs because he proved a bit too NFL owner–ish even for NFL owners. It’s a wild near-feat that speaks to the truly special sort of individual the NFL let into its midst.

ESPN reporters Don Van Natta Jr., Seth Wickersham, and Tisha Thompson reported on Thursday that Snyder is at odds with both the league office and many of his fellow owners, and that the situation is adversarial enough that Snyder’s future as an NFL owner is in question. There are also many fun details, such as Snyder pacing around his $48 million Virginia home called “River View” with a drink in his hand, bragging about all of the dirt he has on commissioner Roger Goodell and the other owners, telling guests things like, “They can’t fuck with me,” and, “The NFL is a mafia. All the owners hate each other.” The reporters have another owner countering, “That’s not true. All the owners hate Dan.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

A slow drip of reporting over the past year has suggested that Snyder’s colleagues are souring on him. ESPN’s report is notable for what it says about one in particular: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Long thought of as Snyder’s protector, ESPN says that Jones has been reticent to back Snyder in front of other owners and “has been careful not to defend Snyder’s character.” If you’re just following which way the wind blows, it seems within reach that 24 of the 32 owners might vote to force Snyder to sell his team.

Advertisement
Advertisement

New damaging information has come to light about Snyder’s operation in recent months. Back in the spring, a former team employee detailed to the House Oversight Committee what he said was a detailed scheme to misclassify ticket revenue to keep it away from a revenue-sharing pot with other teams. The employee brought receipts, the committee said, that appeared to show how the franchise pulled it off. He alleged that the team kept “two sets of books,” one for the NFL and one for “I believe just Mr. Snyder, actually, and the people in his inner circle maybe.” NFL owners will put up with a lot, but not so easily with one of their own hiding money from the group. The Commanders issued a blanket denial of the charge, as has been the organization’s response to most of the specific allegations against Snyder.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The NFL has never gone through with a vote to remove an owner. There’s a mechanism in place for it, though, and owners might’ve used it against the Carolina Panthers’ Jerry Richardson after his own self-immolation came to public light in 2017. Whether they would or wouldn’t have, Snyder might be a unique case. The congressional investigation is prolonged and visible, and the team’s scorched-earth preemptive response to it calls to mind the Phoenix Suns’ wholesale repudiation last year of the mere idea that team owner Robert Sarver might have fostered a hostile workplace. (Sarver is now selling his team.) Another strike is that Snyder is accused of taking from NFL owners rather than on their behalf. And another, maybe the fatal one, concerns how Snyder’s problems connect to the team’s real estate issues.

Advertisement
Advertisement

FedEx Field is a dump, but it’s not that old, having opened in 1997. The Commanders would like a new stadium that looks like every other new spaceship an NFL team opens up these days. And they’d like to get a good deal on it from the government in either Maryland (where they play now), Virginia, or the District of Columbia. But there’s a problem, even beyond general opposition to the widespread practice of tax subsidies and good land deals for professional sporting venues: Snyder is unpopular. He’s been a fixture in local papers for decades, usually not for positive reasons. This very magazine was writing as far back as 2014 about the problems with giving this man help to build a stadium.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Here, relatedly, is maybe the most instructive passage from ESPN’s whole report:

“Some owners aren’t liked in their cities because their team is losing,” the veteran owner explains. “That goes with the territory. Snyder isn’t liked because of what he has done to that franchise, with all its history. The stadium is falling apart. The team is underperforming. He can’t get a new stadium. There’s no way out. … He may have passed the point of no return.”

When asked whether his fellow owners would forgive Snyder for the team’s financial woes and the toxic culture scandal if Snyder could build a new stadium, the owner quickly replied, “Yes.” 

Asked if Snyder is aware of that, the owner said, “Yes.”

Advertisement

NFL owners don’t like being stolen from, but they do like it when their fellow owners are able to build stadiums on desirable land, oftentimes (though it’s not clear what the outcome will be in this case) with help from taxpayers. Stadiums grow revenue, including revenue that goes into the shared pot between the teams. They are glistening monuments to the NFL’s preeminence in our society. And each good deal an NFL team gets can stand up as precedent for the next one to do the same, enriching everyone who owns a franchise. Many NFL owners are able to pull this off, because they’re rich and well connected. They lead beloved teams that are sort of like privatized civic treasures, and lots of voters like football. Snyder is wealthy and wired-in, too, but he may have a problem. He may be so toxic that he can’t get his desired stadium in any of the jurisdictions that could reasonably house a team called “Washington.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

D.C. has one site, at present, that looks ready-made to host an NFL stadium. Several city council members don’t want to work to gift wrap it for the Commanders while the team is under investigation. An enticement package in the Virginia legislature is in a holding pattern in part for the same reason. Maryland’s (outgoing) governor says the state won’t get into a “bidding war,” and you can be the judge of whether going from Republican Larry Hogan to a likely Democratic successor will make the state any friendlier to Snyder. It’s hard enough to get these projects across the line in ordinary circumstances.

Advertisement
Advertisement

If Snyder gets got, it won’t be because he managed a nightmare workplace or because the Commanders are a farcical on-field operation that can never know happiness. (In fitting Commanders fashion, they actually won a game on Thursday night, and the night still ended with the head coach cussing and storming out of his press conference.) Instead, Snyder will be out of the NFL because he couldn’t keep up appearances well enough to let his peers carry out their preferred business in peace. NFL ownership is one of the most exclusive clubs in the United States, and getting kicked out of it for general villainy might be impossible. But getting booted for insufferability is a much different game.

Advertisement