Underneath the numbers, there is the sense of something personal in what the NFL did to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Strip away the legalese and salary cap terms, and what we are left with is the fact that 28 other owners were so furious with Snyder that they decided to kneecap him. Call it a lifetime achievement award for how he does business.
In the most crucial offseason of the past decade for the Redskins, once again they find themselves hobbled by their owner’s bad judgment. Instead of having more than $30 million with which to buy players when free agency opened Tuesday afternoon, the Redskins had just $17 million, the rest stripped away by the league as a penalty because the owners believe Snyder maneuvered improperly during the recent NFL labor strife to gain an unfair advantage.
Anything sound familiar to anybody?
The word is that Snyder is beside himself, but he has only his uncontrollable self-interest to blame. What happened was this: Back in 2010, when the NFL entered hardball negotiations with the players union for a new labor contract, the owners warned each other not to use the situation to get a leg up. They were in an uncapped year, with no limit on player salaries, and entering a tense and emotionally fraught labor situation, and they asked each other not to abuse the circumstances.
In essence they said, “Don’t try to set yourselves up to be in a better spot when this is over.” Think of it like a yellow caution flag in a car race: The drivers agree to hold their places and not to accelerate until the track is clear.
But that’s exactly what Snyder did. To a lesser extent, so did Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones just sped up a little. Snyder apparently floored it. The Redskins shifted money, moved it, dumped it, and did everything they could to emerge from the labor pause with the books cleared of bad numbers, so when it was over they could get the biggest jump possible on other franchises in buying up new players.
The NFL has ordered the Redskins to take a $36 million hit over two seasons, while the Cowboys have been told to give back $10 million.
Think about that for a moment: Jones is generally the most excessive operator in the NFL yet Snyder apparently outstripped him by more than three times. That is a serious fiscal rebuke from Commissioner Roger Goodell and the management council. The fact that they did it on the eve of free agency tells you how harshly they meant to punish.
What’s more, one person told Mark Maske of The Post that some of the owners considered $36 million letting the Redskins off easy.
“A lot of people were very angry about it,” the person said. “The ramifications could have been far worse for them.” Apparently some even recommended that the Redskins should lose draft picks.
Snyder is said to be lawyering up and alleging “collusion,” but experts say a legal challenge will be tough. For one thing, colluding in this instance means improperly acting collectively to suppress salaries. But salaries weren’t suppressed. They were just moved around, manipulated by the Redskins for the purpose of evasion and gaining a future competitive advantage when the cap was reinstated. For another, the group that the NFL owners supposedly colluded against, the union, has signed off on the punishment.
There is a disturbing background and context to this penalty. It feels like the culmination of years of operating in a certain way. Obviously, Snyder has not built up a reservoir of goodwill among his fellow owners, despite the profitability of his team. Also, why does he always end up in these situations? Why is there always some misunderstanding involving the spirit of an agreement?
Surely there was a way for Snyder to clear some reasonable cap space without so incensing others. This bungle is as costly any of his overpriced free agent misjudgments; it comes just as they gave up multiple picks in exchange for the right to draft a franchise quarterback, probably Robert Griffin III, and once again hampers their ability to build, though Tuesday’s opening of free agency yielded some promising returns. Snyder is like a huge costly lien against the team that prevents it from getting ahead. Call it the Snyder tax.
Snyder can argue that he did nothing technically wrong all he wants. But he didn’t do anything smart either. There was nothing astute about this exercise. Whether Snyder likes it or not, he needs other owners to bless his practices. The NFL is a private association, and if owners act as adversaries on the field, they also act as partners to some extent. The mature owners know when to act as which. As a group they have historically subscribed to the philosophy that a certain competitive balance is the healthiest thing for all.
Instead Snyder used the uncapped year to help himself and hurt others, clumsily dumping money in hopes of erasing past mistakes and taking a shortcut to the future. He sent a message that he was preparing to bid high for a whole bunch of shiny new free agents, making the other owners who want those players bitterly unhappy.
You have to cooperate with other people at times. None of us succeeds alone, and even our competitors have to play a certain role in our success, if only by not jamming a stick in our wheels. When you try to get a leg up while everybody around you is standing still, they resent it. And they will get you for it.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.