Around this time last year, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder channeled regret. His team had turned in another mediocre campaign, free of playoff eligibility. In a forum organized by The Washington Post, Snyder sounded haunted by the results:
“When you look at what an owner goes through . . . understand that we feel so bad when we disappoint the fans,” he said.
No question that the fans, who pour cash into parking, replica jerseys, tickets and more, deserve sympathy from Snyder. Yet this year, the owner should think of adding another Redskins constituency to his list of apology recipients. That would be the media.
Start with the Washington City Paper, the outlet that Snyder decided to sue last February for a docket’s worth of silly reasons (and one sturdy one). Though Snyder always maintained that it was the City Paper that needed to apologize to him, the baselessness of his bullying legal action ultimately forced the owner to bag the suit without securing any meaningful concessions from the weekly newspaper. (Disclosure: I am a former editor of the paper.)
Throw in a mea culpa for the organization’s mixed signals pertaining to the vaunted Redskins season-ticket waiting list. Club officials have long maintained that the list contains hundreds of thousands fans ready to sign on for FedEx Field seats. Yet in mid-July, a Redskins official admitted in a radio interview that the team had failed to sell season tickets for thousands of seats that it ended up removing from the stadium. The team later issued an e-mail addressing “confusion in the media” about the waiting list.
Another stop on the media-contrition tour for Snyder should be Frank Schwab. Frank Schwab?
He’s a sports reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, and he’s connected to the Redskins media management via clandestine air travel. More than two years ago, on Sept. 28, 2009, Schwab got a call from a source at Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colo. Schwab lives close to the air hub, which is just around the corner from the Denver Broncos facility, a team that Schwab covered for seven years.
The source was calling with a tip: Hey, the Redskins’ corporate jet is here. Wonder what that could be all about.
Schwab had his hunches. At the time he got the tip, the Redskins were doing horribly. They were 1-2 and had just lost to the then-terrible Detroit Lions. Under the direction of Coach Jim Zorn, the team was a threat to its opponents on no given Sunday.
Deposed Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan lived just down the street as well — just take a left out of the airport onto Arapahoe and then a right onto University. You’re there in 15 minutes. Speculation among Schwab and his fellow sports scribes had Shanahan taking over in either Washington or Dallas for the 2010-11 season.
Could Redskins owner Daniel Snyder be shopping for a head coach just three weeks into the 2009-10 campaign? Had Snyder jetted in for a meeting?
Schwab was convinced, so he jumped on it, contacting the Redskins for confirmation. “I called the Redskins and they totally denied it, saying, ‘No, no we use that jet for charitable functions.’ ” Schwab’s story on the episode carried this line from Redskins spokesperson Zack Bolno: “It’s unrelated to the Washington Redskins.”
Not a convincing alibi. “I didn’t believe it,” says Schwab. However: “I couldn’t find anyone who could confirm Dan Snyder was in Colorado, so I couldn’t write anything more than what I had.”
The reporter’s skepticism found redemption this season. The Washington Post’s Mike Wise, in an investigative look-back piece, chronicled how Snyder’s pursuit of Shanahan started earlier and more impulsively than the public had known. And the landing at Centennial was a central part of the recruitment.
Contrary to the denial issued to Schwab, Snyder and some close Redskins associates made a spur-of-the-moment flight to Denver and sat for hours in a hastily arranged pow-wow with Shanahan, as Wise reported. The time-zone jumping followed that memorable defeat at the hands of the Lions. The trip, the meeting, the location — all of it was an example of daredevil sports management, to use the most charitable characterization.
Keeping the facts from seeping into the public domain required an exertion whose full contours may never be known. What is clear, though, is that it extended beyond a well-sourced reporter at a Colorado paper. In his expose on the plane trip, Wise quotes a Snyder associate:
“Everybody bought it,” one of the participants said. “I still remember [Sports Illustrated’s] Peter King calling Vinny [Cerrato] on his cellphone, telling Vinny he knows we’re in Denver. Vinny says, ‘Peter, we’re not in Denver. We’re at Redskins Park right now. Go look in the parking lot. All our cars are there.’ And I hear Peter on the other end say, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t think you guys would be so [expletive] obvious.’ And he hung up.”
Story suppressed. Peter King moved right on to other matters, in part, he said, because he didn’t think these two fellows would be in serious talks to begin with: “I knew Mike Shanahan and I knew it was a long shot that he’d go to work for someone who dabbled as seriously and significantly as Dan Snyder did. I didn’t think that was ever going to happen.”
The Post also left its better journalistic instincts in the clipboard, thanks to the Redskins’ denial. The paper was getting tips from a person who claimed to have seen Snyder on the ground at Centennial. “The frustrating thing for all of us as reporters at the time is that we were making calls that day and then we felt like we had it and went to the ’Skins and there was a blanket statement,” says Wise. “When in doubt, cut it out, so we didn’t go with it.”
There’s an additional level of dysfunction in this tale. Bolno, the Redskins operative entrusted with selling Snyder’s not-in-Denver line, didn’t even know whether the story was true, according to two sources with knowledge of the episode. He was merely deployed to issue the denial on behalf of the organization, say the sources. Bolno is no longer with the organization and declined to comment for this story.
Karl Swanson, a top Snyder lieutenant at the time, is no longer with the organization and declined to comment for this story. David Donovan, a top Snyder lieutenant at the time, is no longer with the organization and declined to comment for this story. Cerrato, a top Snyder lieutenant at the time, is no longer with the organization and declined to comment for this story. Current Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie, too, declined to comment.
The silence points to a lack of organizational pride in the Denver plane event. Yet the episode concerns not just the team. It concerns how an NFL franchise treats its press corps and how that press corps just swallows it. They don’t want to cut off their best sources, after all.
Just a few months after Snyder’s plane touched down in Denver, the Redskins announced the hiring of Shanahan as the team’s new head coach. As Shanahan made his rounds with the local press, he was asked about the plane trip that no one knew much about. From a Washington Post story:
Shanahan denied meeting Snyder in Denver, where Snyder’s private plane flew after a Sept. 27 loss at Detroit. But the conversations between current owner and prospective coach continued, even as Zorn’s team struggled.
With the new head coach preaching the same message as Redskins Inc., the team’s reporters grasped for other story lines. What about that new 3-4 defensive strategy? Did the Redskins personnel jibe with such an alignment? What about the quarterback position?
Ferreting out the truth about Centennial Airport would take some time. Personnel turnover at Redskins Park had to reach deep. And it did. As the months went by, Cerrato, Swanson and Donovan parted ways with the team, each in his own way. Twenty months after the actual event, Wise was finally able to secure the sourcing and the details to take the spin off of this particular ball.
Published on Sept. 10, the story began by highlighting Snyder’s whimsical nature. Distraught over the loss to the Lions, Snyder said to his colleagues, “Let’s go get Mike Shanahan.” Scramble the jet!
More astonishing than the revelations in the Wise piece was the failure of other Redskins beat reporters to hop on the story. Few outlets, it seemed, wanted to push these revelations into another news cycle, even though the piece contained hints of shadiness concerning the hiring of Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Searches on the Internet and Nexis turned up little in the way of substantive follow-ups.
Nor did the Redskins field much reportorial pushback on the question. “Not at all,” said Wyllie, explaining that the media was preoccupied with on-the-field matters. Of course it was. Why press the team on a fundamental question of accountability when there are passes to be thrown, tackles to be executed, audibles to be called?
The shallowness runs even deeper. When I asked around to see whether Redskins reporters would discuss the situation, they didn’t want any part of the conversation. Rich Campbell, who covers the team for the Washington Times, declined to comment on advice from his supervisors. A reporter for another outlet spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Post Sports Editor Matt Vita declined to comment on whether he would take up the matter of the Redskins’ trustworthiness in light of his own columnist’s scoop. King reported that he hadn’t expressed any concerns about his treatment to the Redskins. How would he deal with it? “The next time I talk to Vinny,” King said, “I’m just going to say to him, ‘Look, I don’t appreciate that.’ ”
The non-reaction of the beat reporters speaks to the imbalance of power under which they work. They depend so much on the team for information about injuries, uniforms, personnel and other fan-essential data that they cannot even risk going long on checkered moments in the organization’s past.
So outlets looking to cover an NFL team need a team of their own. Someone’s got to cover the day-in, day-out gridiron news, a pursuit that is precious to fans and rules out bigger, investigative stories that’ll burn sources. And someone else has to take care of the accountability stuff — preferably a columnist like Wise or a staffer from the paper’s investigative unit.
Fact-checking, after all, is just as important when you’re talking about NFL teams as when you’re talking about presidential candidates. Said King: ”I hate to be non-outraged about it, but I’m 54 years old and I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I . . . don’t like it but also acknowledge that it’s more part of our business than I’d like to think it is.” Put him on the apology list, too.
When asked whether Snyder would be addressing the 2011 campaign, Wyllie responded, “The season just ended. Give [us] a couple days.”