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Friendly advice for Redskins owner Dan Snyder: Please get help

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 7:43 PM

When a family member, friend or professional colleague seems to suffer from delusions and act in self-destructive ways, the proper thing to do is intervene. Go see a therapist, you say. Or maybe try yoga? Just get help.

That's where we stand in the Washington region right now regarding Redskins owner Dan Snyder. He's a part of our family, an important part, for as long as he owns the team.

And his latest move, suing City Paper for defamation, leaves little doubt that he could use some help.

The suit, over a cover story in November, was self-defeating in multiple ways. Like any public figure, Snyder must overcome sizable legal obstacles to win in court, given the media's First Amendment rights. Fans have derided the suit. Even a rabbi told me that he didn't buy Snyder's claim that City Paper's cover illustration looked anti-Semitic.

I am left thinking that Snyder's childish needs for self-justification and revenge are overpowering what should be mature judgments (in his mid-40s) about how a prominent, wealthy, powerful sports team owner should behave.

The fact is, the guy needs some class. Shall we ask fans to contribute to a "help Dan Snyder grow up" charitable fund? He hardly needs the money, but it'd be a way to make the point.

Snyder's self-centered behavior and apparent lack of realism are reflected in the ways he has mismanaged the team. He has been too involved in personnel decisions, which he should have left to experienced football professionals. He has overspent on players who had gaudy reputations but were past their prime.

"He's run a historically great sports franchise into the ground. He's made terrible decisions, [and] he can't take the criticism," said Tony Disabatino, 27, one of several Redskins fans who denounced Snyder on Thursday evening at the sports-oriented Cleveland Park Bar and Grill in Northwest Washington. "Unfortunately, we're stuck with this guy, some juvenile."

Looking at the lawsuit, let's start with the provocative charge that the illustration represented "anti-Semitic imagery." It was a photo of Snyder defaced with scribbles giving him horns, bushy eyebrows, a mustache and goatee.

I thought it made him look like a devil. It seemed appropriate, if silly, for an article described in the headline as "an encyclopedia of the owner's many failings." It didn't occur to me that it could be seen as anti-Semitic.

Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah in Northwest agreed with me.

"I don't think this is anti-Semitic. I think it's highly juvenile," Zemel said. If the paper had set out to do something anti-Semitic, he said, it would have given Snyder "a large nose, a bigger kind of beard, a hat, to give it a horrible, medieval rabbi look."

Nowhere does the City Paper article mention that Snyder is Jewish.

Then there's the possibility that Snyder might lose the case.

Much of his complaint rests on four instances in which he alleges that City Paper's reporting was inaccurate. But a close reading of the court filing and the article shows that in many places, Snyder is complaining about exaggerated language typical in an opinion piece, which, at least to me, this clearly was.

Did City Paper cross a line? Maybe. But it's going to be awfully hard to prove.

For instance, the suit alleges in part that City Paper erred in saying "that Mr. Snyder caused Agent Orange to be used to destroy trees."

That refers to a summary at the start of the article, which reads that Snyder "made a great view of the Potomac River for himself by going all Agent Orange." Later on, the article said Snyder "cut down trees."

Some legal experts said such semantic edginess is well within the bounds of speech protected by the First Amendment.

"The idea is that free speech and freedom of the press need breathing space. You have to allow not only a measure of hyperbole but also a measure of falsehood in order to have a robust press," said Ronald Collins, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle.

The arguments against suing a newspaper are so strong that professional business consultants usually try to talk clients out of it. One of the biggest drawbacks, of course, is that the suit itself calls attention to the original, negative article.

"It's like trying to put out a petroleum fire on an oil rig with a water hose. All you do is spread the flames," said Gene Grabowski, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications.

What, then, would motivate Snyder to take the step? Perhaps he's trying to bankrupt City Paper, by forcing it into a lengthy, costly legal battle. If so, that just reinforces Snyder's reputation as a vindictive bully.

Grabowski believes it was a deeply personal decision.

"He's doing it for the same reason that most people in power sue publications. His feelings have been hurt," Grabowski said. "If that sounds frivolous, it really isn't. When people's emotions get involved, reason takes a back seat to rash action."

Rash action is just what's been plaguing the Redskins since Snyder bought the team. So do us all a favor, Mr. Owner, and sort out those bad emotions once and for all. Or sell the team so we don't suffer as well.

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