The NFL may soon remove Dan Snyder, directly or indirectly, from ownership of the Washington Commanders. That will get rid of a problem, but it will not be a solution.
Rumors have swirled over Snyder’s future control of the team, further made concrete after Colts owner Jim Irsay publicly stated that he believed there was merit to remove Snyder from ownership, further adding that there may be enough votes (24) to do so. He was even bold enough to say that this vote could happen as early as this March.
While this would be the correct move for dozens of reasons, the NFL is structurally set up to create Dan Snyders, and it will never rid itself of that problem for as long as it continues to employ this ownership model — one not unique to American business, but made all the more apparent because of the NFL’s public presence.
Dan Snyder’s Ownership Has Been Nothing but Scandal
The allegations surrounding Dan Snyder are shocking and numerous. Most immediately, Snyder is alleged to have contributed to a toxic working environment rife with sexual harassment, according to the Washington Post and the first 15 alleged victims to come forward about the rampant emotional and sexual abuse they faced while working for the team.
Following that, the Washington Post published a follow-up piece with additional allegations that included reporting on an incident where Washington was alleged to have filmed cheerleaders during a photoshoot without their knowledge, producing lewd videos called “the good bits” on multiple shoots over multiple years.
Additional allegations include Snyder pressuring a cheerleader to have relations with Washington Commanders suite holders, direct accusations of impropriety and harassment from Snyder himself, claims that women were fired from non-public facing roles for not looking sufficiently attractive, and the institution of a set of formal and informal policies preventing women from advancing up the organization.
These allegations are completely separate from another set of accusations reported in the New York Times in 2018, where Snyder and Washington team executives were alleged to have withheld passports from cheerleaders who traveled to Costa Rica for a calendar photoshoot, pressuring them into nude shoots and into escort service with VIPs.
And none of these reports reference a sexual assault allegation from 2009, one that Snyder settled for $1.6 million, or the investigation from the Drug Enforcement Administration into Washington’s trainers for a prescription drug dispersal scheme.
Scandals like these, particularly the most recent ones, inspired a congressional investigation. While both the Post and Times pieces are extremely thoroughly reported with dozens of witnesses, the congressional investigation brought forth additional witnesses with testimony to new incidents of misconduct as well as evidence in the form of emails, text messages, telephone records, and social media posts.
The most recent reporting, this time from ESPN, details Snyder’s spats with the other owners and a concerted effort from some of those owners to remove Snyder from the team’s ownership. Critically, none of the above claims are the driving force behind the movement to remove Snyder.
In the NFL, Money Talks
The owners need Snyder to generate revenue, and FedEx Field is a money-loser.
Because of the shared revenue arrangement between NFL teams and the owners, a money-losing operation drains all the owners, not just the head of one particular franchise.
The scandals surrounding Snyder do play a role — Snyder is unable to secure stadium funding from local governments because politicians are increasingly unwilling to work with him to make a deal happen. This is extraordinary; it is rare for municipalities and states not to work extensively with teams to provide some form of subsidy for stadiums, and most team movement occurs not because of an unwillingness from local governments to provide funding but a genuine desire for an owner to move to a new location.
It’s even more remarkable given how willing those politicians had previously been to work with Snyder, with high-ranking officials on both sides of the aisle willing to sponsor a bill providing stadium funding. After additional scandals came to light, officials from both parties stepped back from that intially strong support.
This is a massive failure of an effort necessitated by poor gate receipts, a stadium literally falling apart, and a sewage rainwater system that spews an all-too-appropriate metaphor for Washington’s attempts at damage control.
These aren’t the only issues holding back the team’s financial potential, as business sponsors have pulled out of lucrative deals with Washington.
Before financial implications reared their head — spurred by further allegations that Washington hid gate revenue from visiting teams — owners did not push for Snyder’s removal. In fact, they approved a deal just last year that allowed Snyder and his family to purchase the remaining shares of the Washington franchise, which resolved internal turmoil among the ownership group that wanted Snyder to be forced to sell.
Irsay’s stated reasoning for going public with his opinions on the state of Snyder’s ownership had to do with the allegations surrounding the toxic workplace culture at Washington, but we know that there have been multiple versions of these allegations that have existed for some time.
The NFL Protected Dan Snyder, but Snyder Is Not the Only Owner Protected by the NFL
The NFL protected Snyder at every turn, refusing to make public or publish the finding of Beth Wilkinson’s report on Washington’s workplace culture. Indeed, that was part of a deal the NFL struck with Washington, allowing the team to veto the release of any information.
Owners have been upset at Roger Goodell’s hands-off policy, which includes a refusal to punish Washington for violations of the Rooney Rule. Nevertheless, ESPN’s report indicates that many owners were happy with how the Wilkinson report was eventually handled as it “did what it had to do,” calling it “damage control.”
It’s no secret that NFL teams are not your friend.
But the explicit belief that investigations into toxic workplace culture that left behind a wake of emotional damage among dozens of employees are meant more for damage control than accountability brings that fact to the forefront.
On top of that, one owner was asked if fellow owners would forgive Snyder for his scandals if Snyder could secure a stadium deal. The owner immediately responded by saying, “Yes.”
ESPN’s reporting suggests that a fear of retaliation could play a role in Goodell’s hesitancy, and that could be the case. Not only has ESPN reported that Snyder has hired private investigators to tail multiple team owners to compile incriminating or damaging information, but of Goodell himself.
They are not alone in this type of allegation, as memos produced in congressional committees detail testimony from witnesses who describe similar investigations. Those private investigator allegations even extended into alleged interference with witnesses who would cooperate with the Wilkinson investigation.
Washington has denied this reporting at every turn.
But fear of retaliation would not explain Goodell’s continued protection of other NFL owners. Goodell expressed confidence in Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns, after a rebate scandal with his Flying J brand of trucking gas stations allegedly cheated trucking operators out of millions of dollars of value. Goodell went on to affirmatively state that Haslam did not know about the rebate operation despite some fairly compelling evidence to the contrary.
Goodell delayed a decision on any discipline for Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, for his alleged participation in illegally solicited prostitution at a Florida massage parlor. When it was pointed out to Goodell that players will receive discipline before criminal cases go to trial and that they are not held to a criminal standard, Goodell blithely made a statement that all members of the NFL, from players to owners, are held to the same standard of conduct.
After charges were dropped because video evidence was ruled inadmissible in court, we have yet to see any discipline levied against Kraft. The same consideration was not given to Deshaun Watson after misconduct charges were dropped against him, or to Ezekiel Elliott after domestic violence allegations never developed into criminal allegations.
NFL suspended Irsay for only six games and fined $500,000 after he was arrested under suspicion of DUI and drug possession. Irsay pleaded guilty to one count of Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated. No further punishment was levied against Irsay when it was revealed that a close and possibly intimate associate of Irsay died of a drug overdose in a house purchased with Colts team money — not Irsay’s personal finances.
Roger Goodell Stays Out of Ownership Discipline for a Good Reason
Goodell is smart to stay out of the business of owners, despite being tasked explicitly with the job of being in their business. If Goodell does end up in a position to make a decision on Snyder, whether that’s discipline or something else, he will be immune to accusations of prejudice. Not only that, owners know that if Goodell helps Snyder in this situation, he will help them in any situation that arises for them.
Indeed, the ESPN report indicates that a genuine investigation with real consequences could result in similar investigations into the workplace cultures of the 31 other teams. There are no clean hands, it just so happens that Snyder’s hands look the dirtiest.
The process of acquiring a billion dollars worth of value is never a clean operation. Businesses that operate ethically put constraints upon themselves that unethical businesses do not have, and those businesses outcompete their ethical competitors, allowing them to crowd them out of markets, supply chains, and marketing opportunities — leading to shutdowns or buyouts.
Those who arrive at the top of this messy food chain end up with the means to acquire an NFL team. That’s who runs the NFL.
Goodell is an employee of those owners, put in the position of disciplining his bosses. He has two primary roles — to strike television deals and to make the lives of owners easier.
While his job description is more expansive, one that includes day-to-day administration of the NFL front office, interfacing with medical and legal experts to design league policy, leading in negotiations with the NFLPA, participating in player (and owner) discipline, and so on, the totality of his role is to make money and help ownership.
And one of the best ways to help ownership is to take the heat off of them. Goodell suffers the slings and arrows of the NFL-watching public and becomes the avatar by which fans vent their complaints, allowing owners to own at peace.
He is unpopular so that the owners don’t have to be.
The owners know it, which is why the owners voted 31-1 to open negotiations with Goodell for a new contract. Amidst one of the most scandal-filled NFL runs we’ve seen in some time, as the NFL sees one of its teams under multiple federal investigations, ownership seems prepared to give Goodell a raise on a contract that paid out $128 million over a two-year period.
The NFL Will Always Be Like This
That reward is just a demonstration of the nature of the relationship that owners have with the commissioner. It is structural to the NFL.
It is impossible to avoid, and the NFL will never conduct a satisfactory investigation until the problem becomes so large that it requires a literal act of Congress — the same body that could take away the NFL’s monopoly protection.
This filters down. Accountability becomes progressively harsher the further down the ladder we go in the NFL. It starts with a light touch on ownership, progresses to a heavier hand on the front office, and some additional discipline for coaches. The players receive the least amount of protection and put the most on the line to make sure the NFL is a viable product.
This is baked into the cake, and the owners oversee their own punishment mechanism. The only thing that gets them to move against their own is a threat to their pocketbook, not unethical or gross behavior.
The NFL might get rid of the Dan Snyder that runs the Washington Commanders, but they won’t get rid of any of the other Dan Snyders running NFL teams or the future Dan Snyders that they’ll invite into the club.