Dan Snyder is being unreasonable, is he? Making irrational, insulting and perhaps even extortive demands? Stifle for a moment your heavy, knowing sigh over the predictability of Snyder’s conduct and the fact that he hasn’t sold the Washington Commanders yet. Console yourself with a brightening thought: Snyder’s fellow owners have finally been taken hostage by him, and there’s no easy way to free themselves. The NFL deserves this.
For most of the past 24 years, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners knew who and what Snyder was, but they chose not to care because the only people affected by his petty bug-pinning tyrannies were lowly employees, ticket buyers, minority business partners and women. Finally, NFL owners and magnates bidding on the team are feeling it, too. They are apparently seething over his rude effrontery, the serve-my-whims, feed-me-another-grape demands that they “indemnify” him from anything, ever, before he will free them from his odious presence by selling. Now they’re getting it.
Season after season, they enabled and even prospered Snyder. He ran his franchise with all the trustworthiness and temperament of a drug lord? No problem. Presided over a team headquarters that turned into a peep show, in which female employees were leered at and harassed? No problem. Made a $1.6 million settlement for an alleged assault of a female executive on his private plane, an allegation he has called “meritless”? No problem. Took out a suspect line of credit while spending like a treasury-draining sultan, as ESPN reported this week? No problem. The league gave him a virtue-signaling slap on the wrist — after extending his debt ceiling by $450 million.
The NFL had no problem with any of his corrosive practices, even as the acid spill crept closer. Foisted off expired beer well past its “freshness date” on fans for $9 a pop and peddled sour, rancid old peanuts from defunct Independence Air past their shelf life? No problem. Lied about season ticket waiting lists, deceived customers about fees? Not a problem, either.
You know when the owners started caring? When it finally became clear that Snyder had so exhausted local goodwill that he couldn’t get a new stadium deal done. Only then did they decide to do something about him.
And only now are they fully grasping his deviousness. A word of advice to NFL owners, and prospective bidders, from a longtime Snyder chronicler: He does not function as you do. You may think he’s just another billionaire who eventually will accept terms in a rational self-serving negotiation. He’s not, and he won’t. Don’t underestimate how disordered he is.
Here are a few observations of Snyder’s tendencies, a kind of cheat sheet, based on watching his dealings with everyone from John Riggins to Mike and Kyle Shanahan to Jeff Bezos. First, he combines impossibly high smartest-guy-in-the-room self-regard with clumsy, reflexive acts of self-sabotage. He does not operate from reason. He loathes people who are popular and successful and will set out to surreptitiously kneecap and humiliate them in any way he can, even if he hurts himself, too. As longtime league executive and observer Michael Lombardi has written, Snyder will “hire people that are popular, allowing him to win the news conference, then work behind the scenes to destroy their ability to operate.” Any owner or bidder should understand this buried impulse will trump on-the-table dealings.
Second, Snyder would rather be the central titan in a distressed and failed organization than a marginal figure in a successful but invisible field. The idea that he will voluntarily sell is at a minimum optimistic, and the bidding process, at the moment, could be futile. Closing a sale will sentence him to irrelevance — without the team he will be nobody, a pretend lord, hiding behind his wall of wealth, playing Mr. Rochester at his estates in Virginia and England, yelling tallyho and release the hounds. Every jam-smeared finger might have to be pried forcibly off the team, either in a majority vote of owners or through some backdoor leverage.
Still, is there legitimate hope that Snyder will relinquish the team to a new owner who will give it a future? Yes. Apparently, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys has been dispatched to apply a combination of coaxing and political muscle. Jones once had warm relations with Snyder, and while they aren’t so warm anymore, Jones knows Snyder (and his flaws) best. He is also renowned as the league’s top negotiator, wily and deft when it comes to applying leverage. Here is how Jones recently described his philosophy in dealing with problems:
“It’s kind of for me like sitting in a bar and over the back of your shoulder you see 300 pounds coming, and whatever you’ve done, you’ve made it mad.” Jones observed. “Whatever you said, or whatever you did, or whoever you winked at, you made ’em mad. The mistake would be to jump in front of it and try to mess with it. The smooth thing to do would be to step up, matador style, take him by the shirt, and escort his momentum into the jukebox.”
The owners have Snyder by the shirt. That $450 million debt ceiling from the league wasn’t pure generosity — it gives the owners leverage. So does the Mary Jo White report into allegations he’s a sexual harasser, and so does an ongoing criminal investigation of his finances. Meeting Snyder’s demands never works — he inflicts maximal hell on anyone who accommodates him because he mistakes it for sucker-dom. After accommodating him for years, perhaps now Goodell, Jones and the other owners realize that. They allowed him to take a whole organization captive, looking the other way as Snyder made victims of his workforce and dupes of his customer base, and he responded by taking the league captive, too. And now the only way to get rid of him is to throw him into the jukebox.