Dan Snyder is getting out, and football fans in the Washington, D.C., area are about to be free. Snyder is closing in on an agreement to sell the Washington Commanders, the NFL team he’s owned since 1999, to a group led by private equity billionaire and sports investor Josh Harris. The NFL is reviewing details of the deal, which is reportedly for $6.05 billion. Harris already owns a couple of American franchises, the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, and is not the kind of guy the NFL is likely to box out of its ownership club, Trump-style. Shortly, the capital area’s football team will belong to Harris, and people who care about the team will have unbridled hope for the first time in a long time.
For reasons you are likely familiar with by now, Snyder is an all-time bad guy in professional sports. In addition to losing a lot, he cravenly defended the franchise’s old slur nickname until some 2020 public relations blowback pushed him to change it. His management of his workplace spawned investigations in both Congress and the D.C. attorney general’s office, and one of those investigations found that Snyder impeded a different probe into his behavior. The team at one point quietly settled a sexual misconduct claim against Snyder for $1.6 million. Sexual misconduct and creepy behavior were allegedly commonplace within the franchise.
Snyder was so unlikable that his continued presence atop the franchise made it difficult, maybe impossible, for the Commanders to get the thing the NFL and its owners crave most: public money to build a new stadium. The NFL’s players assessed that the Commanders offered the worst working conditions in the league. Snyder’s behavior has been so odious, and so counterproductive to the league’s ends, that he has become the rare villain who’s too villainous even for the NFL. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay had started to agitate for his fellow owners to vote Snyder out of the league. Snyder selling the team in a normal-ish process avoids that possibility and makes everything a bit cleaner for everyone, including commissioner Roger Goodell.
But a common line of commentary about Snyder’s sale goes like this: He bought the team for relatively little a long time ago. (True.) And now he’s selling it for a huge profit. (Also true.) So, Snyder offloading the Commanders for $6 billion makes a mockery of the idea of “punishment.” For example:
Indeed, Snyder’s punishment is the liquidation of an asset that’s now worth about 7.5 times what he paid for it. Pretty plush, for him. Snyder is so rich, so connected, and so lawyered up that it is hard to impose painful consequences on him for anything he does. But Snyder’s sale of the Commanders, facing the threat of expulsion from the NFL, still represents one of the best punches our society as currently constructed could have landed against him. Snyder will walk away with a pile of cash, but it may be a smaller one than if he’d hung onto the team for longer. And it’s not all about cash, either.
NFL teams are valuation juggernauts. At last check, all of them were appreciating at a double-digit annual rate. And when they sell, they go for even more than the gaudy numbers that industry publications say they are worth. I don’t know anyone who thinks the NFL is anywhere near a point where its businesses will stop growing in leaps and bounds. The league is just at the beginning of a new cycle of the most lucrative broadcast deals in American sports history. The most valuable companies in the world are all clamoring for a piece of the NFL pie. Snyder is reaping a windfall, but it’s highly doubtful that the Commanders will not one day be worth more than they are now. He may well find a better investment vehicle for his newfound $6 billion, but had he not been so vile as the Commanders owner, he might have walked out with a bigger number. A weak consequence? Surely. But it’s not exactly a victory, either.
And also, the money feels secondary. NFL ownership is about getting richer, but it’s also about becoming a knight. There are many wealthier billionaires in the world than the ones who own franchises. (The richest NFL owner, Walmart heir Rob Walton, of the Denver Broncos, is the 18th-richest person in the world. But most NFL owners are reportedly worth mere single-digit billions of dollars, the paupers that they are.) You own an NFL team for the money, but you also own one to say you do, and to have the most fun business toy you could have. You host people in your luxury box. You represent a region. You’re a cultural ambassador. And you control not the most valuable business in the country but maybe the most valuable cultural institution. Nothing gets eyeballs the way the NFL does, and owning a team means owning a spotlight. To own an NFL team is to be at a societal pinnacle.
That’s what Snyder is losing. He’ll still be rich—richer, even—but he’ll lose whatever slim chance remains of being the guy who brought a Super Bowl winner back to D.C. He’ll never be the guy who landed a glistening stadium for the area’s NFL team, but instead the guy who never got them out of their disgusting, charmless traffic vector in Landover, Maryland. Snyder will have to live with being a comprehensive failure in the thing most people know him for doing. People will remember him as the man atop a dysfunctional, rotten organization that made the playoffs six times in 24 years and never surpassed the divisional round. Snyder has enjoyed tremendous bottom-line success in his career, but he will exit the NFL as neither a respectable figure nor one most people know for being good at anything. That may be easier to bear with billions of new dollars in his pocket, but such are the constraints of punishing people like Snyder.
When the dust settles on the sale, Snyder will still have a lot. He will still have a superyacht and an estate called “River View,” the $48 million property where ESPN reported he once mused aloud about blackmailing Goodell so that the commissioner would not “fuck with me.” Snyder will have enough to buy the illusion, if he wants, that he got exactly what he wanted out of his nearly quarter-century owning a treasured NFL franchise. Maybe he’ll even find something that’s just as fun as owning a football team. But he’ll never get the status usually afforded an NFL owner, either from the masses or his soon-to-be-former peers. He’ll never get a championship ring, unless he has one made up. And if he ever tries to get back into the NFL or another major sports league, he will probably be told no. For anyone Snyder wronged during his awful years helming the Commanders, that won’t be much. But it won’t be nothing.
Correction, April 19, 2023: This article originally misstated the value of “River View.”