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Commanders sale teeters amid uncertainty, renewed ire with NFL owners

Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, right, walks on the field in Arlington, Tex., with his wife Tanya and team president Jason Wright, left, before an October game against the Cowboys. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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When the Washington Commanders announced in early November that owner Daniel Snyder was exploring the possibility of selling the franchise, the annual meeting of the NFL’s team owners in late March seemed to be a reasonable target by which a deal with a buyer could be found. Yet with that meeting now just weeks away, the next steps in the prospective sale of the team appear uncertain.

Several potential buyers have been identified, at least two of whom have submitted bids, but the interested party with the most financial wherewithal has been prohibited thus far from making a bid. Snyder has made demands of the league and other team owners for legal protections that would extend beyond him selling his franchise, three people with direct knowledge of the NFL’s inner workings have said. And with the league’s second investigation of Snyder and the team’s workplace entering its 13th month, some owners leaguewide are angry enough about those demands to renew their consideration of taking a vote to remove him from ownership if he refuses to sell.

NFL owners have never voted to oust a fellow owner by forcing the sale of a team, and they have reasons to be cautious in considering such action. The first is that the legality of such a move has never been tested, and even if it held up, it probably would be far from an expedient process.

Daniel Snyder’s demands anger NFL owners, renew talk of voting him out

Asked whether such an action would withstand a legal challenge, Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, said this week that it is difficult to predict the outcome of unprecedented decisions. Feldman noted that the NFL’s constitution and bylaws — a set of documents to which all owners agree — clearly spell out the process for removing an owner. That process includes a closed-door hearing that gives the owner in question the opportunity to challenge the decision. In Feldman’s analysis, as long as the NFL follows its own procedures, its decision would stand up in court.

“If they follow their own rules, then the constitution and bylaws itself say that the decision is final and binding,” Feldman said. “Then the question would be: Does Daniel Snyder try to claim that this is an antitrust violation — that all the owners have gotten together to conspire to prevent him from continuing to own a team?”

If so, Feldman said, the NFL probably would argue that it is pursuing a legitimate goal of protecting its brand.

“If they go through the process to determine that Daniel Snyder is harmful to that image and integrity,” Feldman said, “they have the right to remove him.”

The owners are confident that any vote to force Snyder to sell his franchise would withstand a legal challenge, according to someone with direct knowledge of their views, who said: “You will not defeat that. But it would be bad for everyone.”

If Snyder digs in, he could ask a court for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to put any decision by the owners to force him to sell his team on hold while an underlying lawsuit proceeds, Feldman explained.

“This type of emergency relief is rarely granted, but it would — at least temporarily — almost immediately prevent the NFL from removing him,” Feldman said. “Without the immediate relief, the case could take months or years to wind its way through the courts.”

The possibility is under consideration after Snyder angered several owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell by issuing his demands, according to the three people with direct knowledge of the situation. According to those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic and the legal threat, Snyder seeks indemnification from future legal liability and costs if he sells his team and has threatened to sue if that condition is not met.

“He’s not going to get that,” said one person familiar with the owners’ views.

ESPN reported Tuesday that the federal investigation into allegations of financial improprieties by Snyder and the Commanders in the Eastern District of Virginia is focused on a $55 million line of credit the team had taken out without the knowledge and required approval of Snyder’s former limited partners.

Goodell declined to comment Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Snyder also wants to keep confidential the findings of attorney Mary Jo White’s investigation into him and the team, the three people with direct knowledge of the situation have said. The NFL has said it will release White’s report publicly. The Commanders denied the accounts of those three people.

Moreover, Snyder has refused to entertain a bid from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, out of “spite” over The Post’s coverage of Snyder and the team, according to one person with knowledge of the process. While it is not clear whether that is simply a negotiating tactic by which Bezos eventually will be allowed to bid, continuing to exclude the wealthiest prospective buyer would rile fellow owners further, according to a former NFL executive well versed in franchise sales.

Owners have expressed public support for Bezos to own an NFL franchise. That could be the Commanders. Or it could be the Seattle Seahawks, if the estate of late owner Paul Allen sells the team in the coming years as expected.

“When you’re looking at somebody who can pay more than $5.5 billion, but over personal pique or immaturity you exclude him from the process, I think that’s just going to [irritate] more owners because that’s their money, too,” the former executive said. “The valuation of their organizations will be based on the most recent sale.”

It is unclear whether Snyder will relent on Bezos. Some people within the league and connected to the sales process doubt Snyder would let his animus for The Post rule out getting the highest possible price for the Commanders.

“I don’t understand why you would exclude the one person who could pay you the most,” said a person with direct knowledge of NFL owners’ views.

Forbes estimated the value of the Commanders at $5.6 billion last year. The record sale price for an NFL franchise is the $4.65 billion that a group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton paid last year to purchase the Denver Broncos from the Pat Bowlen Trust.

Tilman Fertitta is involved in bidding for the Commanders

The list of interested Commanders bidders includes Josh Harris, owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils; Tilman Fertitta, owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets; and Bezos, who has hired Allen & Company, a New York-based investment firm that conducted the NFL sales of the Carolina Panthers and the Broncos, to evaluate a prospective bid, according to two people familiar with the arrangement.

Snyder has borrowed heavily against the team, with the NFL’s permission. In March 2021, owners unanimously approved a $450 million debt waiver that enabled Snyder to resolve an acrimonious dispute with his limited partners — Fred Smith, Dwight Schar and Robert Rothman — by buying out their 40 percent stake for approximately $875 million.

But at some point, Snyder must pay down the debt, leading some in and around the sport to question how long he can hold out for a bid to his liking.

If Snyder tries to hold on to the team, the owners would “definitely” move toward a removal vote, according to one of the people with direct knowledge of the owners’ views and the league’s inner workings.

The owners’ preferred outcome is that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — who, as Snyder’s closest ally within the league, is best positioned to broker an amicable resolution — convinces Snyder to sell the team and exit the NFL without further acrimony, one of the people with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said. A second person expressed hope of the owners still “working something out” with Snyder. The Cowboys said that Jones was not available to comment this week on the topic.

NFL owners regard a removal vote as the step of last resort — not only because of the unwelcome precedent it would set and the risks and rigors of litigation but also the collateral damage.

“If they move to take the team from him, they have suppressed the value of the team because somebody is now buying the team in a fire sale and in an environment that they know will be subject to pretty significant, disruptive disputes,” the former NFL executive explained. “It’s destructive.”