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A look at the Dan Snyder you don't hear so much about

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder seems to have become the most hated man in Washington, so I set out to see whether I could find anybody who liked the guy. It wasn't hard. He's given millions of dollars to charitable causes in our region, especially ones benefiting young people, and the recipients are grateful. What's more, many who spent time with Snyder said he can be a nice fellow, even a bit shy.

I know what you're thinking: "You dimwit -- of course they like him if he gives them money. He's still an arrogant meddler who won't let professionals run the team properly, and . . ." Well, you get the idea.

So I'm asking all you Snyder-bashers to put aside your hostility briefly and open your minds to the possibility that he's got a good side, a generous side, a caring side.

I'm not defending his management of the team, and I realize he shares his wealth partly out of self-interest to improve his image in the community. Nevertheless, a string of people whom I interviewed last week praised Snyder for being sincerely considerate and benevolent and said the toxic reputation he's acquired is incomplete and misleading.

Admittedly, the portrait was mixed. On the plus side, Snyder has contributed a lot of money, time and Redskins tickets to nonprofit groups that help children. He has repeatedly taken the initiative to do favors for people in need, such as lending his jet to coaches, players and others for funerals, family illnesses and other personal crises.

On the other hand, Snyder can be demanding and impatient when he is in billionaire executive mode. His often-abrasive manner explains in part why his good works haven't inspired the popular affection accorded to another local sports owner and philanthropist, Abe Pollin, who died last month.

Snyder "is someone who I believe genuinely cares about children," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, which Snyder and his family have supported for more than a decade.

As with many CEOs, though, Snyder's public persona "is not necessarily warm and fuzzy," Allen said. "He's a tough guy, he's a bottom-line guy," and "that doesn't necessarily translate into an image that the whole community warms to," Allen said.

Snyder's donations to the center, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, helped fund its national hotline for missing children. Snyder has also spent many hours studying the center's operations, providing advice and soliciting support for it.

John Wm. Thomas, former vice president for development of Children's National Medical Center, presented a similar picture. He worked closely with Snyder in the late 1990s, when the Snyder family donated several million dollars to the hospital, some of which paid to update and more than triple the size of the emergency room.

"He may be an enigma to a lot of people, but I've seen the side of Dan that is compassionate, responsive," Thomas said. He said Snyder got that part of his personality from his late father, Gerry, whom Thomas described as warm and engaging. "Just as there's a really strong, steely side from his mother in Dan, there's also this side that comes from Gerry," Thomas said.

Snyder's gifts "really helped modernize the whole department," said James Chamberlain, chief of the hospital's emergency medicine division. When he met Snyder, Chamberlain said, "he seemed like a nice guy. I thought he was a little shy."

Snyder also has supported the Larry King Heart Foundation and the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial project. He founded the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation, which has pumped more than $13 million into the community, especially for youth education and health programs. Snyder and the Redskins raised $1 million for the Pentagon Relief Fund after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Still, Snyder's reputation has hit bottom this season, partly because of the team's 3-8 record going into Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints at Fedex Field. Unhappy fans unfurled a "Worst Owner Ever" banner at the last home game, Nov. 14, and several anti-Snyder blogs have sprung up. Former Redskins star John Riggins, now a broadcast commentator, accused Snyder of being "a bad guy" and a person "whose heart is dark."

Even Tanveer Chowdhury -- a founder of the blog Dan Snyder Must Go -- who thinks Snyder is "very arrogant," saw Riggins's comment as "a little too much." Of Snyder's philanthropy, Chowdhury said, "That's a great thing, but my issue with him is how he runs the team."

At Youth for Tomorrow, a live-in school and support program for troubled teenagers in Prince William County, youths who've benefited from Snyder's support were appreciative.

"I think he's a blessing. There are a lot of people with a lot of money who don't use it for any good," said an 18-year-old woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she risks reprisals from past associates. She earned her GED on Friday with help from the program, despite barely attending school for years after the eighth grade.

Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs founded and chairs Youth for Tomorrow. "The things we've seen him do -- it's a side of Dan where he tries to help others," Gibbs said. Asked why Snyder's reputation is so poor, Gibbs cited the team's performance. "When the football team loses, there's negativity that goes with that," he said.

Amen, Joe. A winning team would dramatically improve Snyder's image. A more amiable attitude, more often, would also help. Still, fans should recognize that even the man they love to loathe has redeeming qualities.

E-mail me at mccartneyr@washpost.com.

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