Boardroom untangles the mess of investigations and drama surrounding the Commanders and what they could mean regarding a potential sale of the franchises.
It has been said that sports team owners don’t actually “own” anything, but are rather the stewards of civic institutions, fostering a flame to be passed on to future generations. Although it may sound silly to some, sports franchises are essential pieces of the cultural fabric and identity of a city or region; could you imagine New York without the Yankees or Green Bay without the Packers? Owners may change over the years, but these institutions still remain — and in the case of the NFL’s Washington Commanders, an ownership change appears to be imminent.
Last week, it was reported that embattled Commanders majority owners Daniel Snyder and Tanya Snyder had engaged Bank of America to explore the possibility of selling some or all of the franchise.
Since purchasing the team for $800 million in 1999 at the age of 35, Dan Snyder has been a lightning rod for criticism among fans, the media, and fellow owners alike. In recent years, however, criticism has given way to controversy and scandal, culminating in a slew of investigations ranging from the internal to the NFL-sanctioned and all the way to federal.
Though his tenure as owner had been characterized primarily by ineptitude with respect to the team’s football operations and results on the field, a 2020 Washington Post report found that Daniel Snyder had fostered an organizational culture marked by sexual harassment of female employees and media members by team staffers. This report prompted an internal investigation led by attorney Beth Wilkinson that was subsequently taken over by the NFL for reasons that ESPN would later report to include a parallel “shadow investigation” of the Wilkinson probe.
(If you’re wondering what a “shadow investigation” entails, Snyder apparently hired a separate law firm and a team of personal investigators to intimidate and discredit witnesses and key figures involved in Wilkinson’s effort, including several Washington Post journalists who were involved with the original report.)
Along the way, the NFL and the Commanders reportedly entered into a “mutual interest agreement” that gave the Commanders veto power on what information in the report ultimately became public. Both Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell were apparently so concerned about the nature of the contents of the report that the two sides stopped Wilkinson from codifying her findings in a formal written report — instead, they had her convey them orally to Goodell from her notes.
In the wake of the attention surrounding the toxic culture of the Commanders, the US House Oversight Committee, which is chaired by New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, launched an investigation of their own into the then-Washington Football Team. As part of the inquiry, both Snyder and Goodell were called to testify before Congress to address the league’s handling of the Wilkinson investigation and to probe other allegations further regarding Snyder and the team, which included a report that Snyder had reached a substantial settlement with a former team employee after he allegedly made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances towards her on a plane in 2009.
On the heels of the Congressional investigation, which concluded over the summer, there have been growing calls by many in and out of league circles — now including at least one fellow NFL owner, the Indianapolis Colts’ Jim Irsay — for the Snyders to sell the team.
"Employees say the workplace was 'like the mafia,' in which Snyder and prominent executives regularly used bullying and vulgar language when talking to subordinates, creating a culture of fear and paranoia. pic.twitter.com/9GWFxTORJl— Daniel Wallach (@WALLACHLEGAL) November 10, 2022
Things seemed to have reached an inflection point several weeks ago at the October owners’ meeting with an increasing population around the league sensing that Snyder’s days among the ownership fraternity could finally be nearing its end. His continued ability to dodge any material consequences for his actions has led many to speculate about what leverage “Teflon Dan” might have over the league and his fellow owners; right on cue, an in-depth report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta, Jr, Seth Wickersham, and Tisha Thompson published on Oct. 13 revealed that Snyder has a history of proactively engaging private investigators to “dig up dirt” on those in his orbit, including a list of several of his fellow owners that includes longtime ally Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.
The ESPN report cited sources close to Daniel Snyder who quoted him as saying “They can’t fucky with me” — “they” being the NFL and the other 31 majority owners due to the amount of potentially damaging information he had supposedly uncovered about them. So far, critics have questioned whether Snyder actually truly has anything damaging on Goodell and fellow owners or whether he is merely bluffing to avoid the final exit that increasingly feels inevitable.
In spite of calls for the NFL to force Snyder’s hand to sell or simply oust him, the legal path to doing so is fairly tricky. The NFL is considered to be an “unincorporated association,” which is effectively a legal partnership between all 32 member franchises. Like any other form of legal partnership, they make their own rules about things like involuntary transfers of ownership. The NFL specifically has a constitution that comprehensively spells out rules dictating everything from how beer is served in stadiums to the latitude the commissioner is given to mete out various punishments.
Although it may be something of a moot point now, it is worth explaining the mechanics of how the league could force an owner to sell their team.
Under the NFL’s constitution, the commissioner has the power to:
- Impose discipline on a team owner if he or she has violated the constitution and/or is “guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League or professional football.” In such cases, the commissioner has the latitude to impose fines and suspensions upon the offending owner
- Go even further with disciplining an offending owner by referring to the matter to the NFL’s “Executive Committee,” which consists of one representative from each team and has the power to vote on whether an owner should be required to forfeit their team. This vote would require at least two-thirds of owners (20 of 32, in this case) to vote for Snyder’s formal ouster from the league.
The prevailing sentiment is that regardless of whether Snyder is bluffing about the so-called dirt he has on the other owners, plenty of NFL owners are worried about throwing stones from proverbial glass houses out of fear it might prompt some outside parties (ambitious journalists, for instance) to dig into their pasts to discover a pretense for them to lose their own teams.
Putting Snyder’s expulsion up to a vote of the Executive Committee would likely be considered the nuclear option given that other more-subtle-but-effective leverage tactics exist, like denying Snyder access to the NFL’s debt pool typically used to help owners finance new stadiums. That said, the NFL and the other owners likely won’t need to devise any additional maneuvers (Machiavellian or otherwise) given the number of law enforcement authorities that have taken a clear interest in Snyder and the Commanders. In addition to the Congressional investigation, it has been reported that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been conducting an investigation of its own into Snyder and the Commanders for allegedly engaging in financial fraud by skimming revenue off the top of money that was slated to go into the league-wide revenue sharing pool. On Nov. 2, ESPN’s Van Natta reported that the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia was investigating “alleged financial improprieties” by the Commanders organization.
To make matters worse for Snyder, Washington, DC Attorney General Karl Racine held a press conference on Nov. 10 to announce that his office was filing a civil suit against the Commanders, Snyder, the NFL, and Goodell under the District of Columbia’s consumer protection law(s) for misleading fans and consumers by denying knowledge of and proceeding to cover up the Commanders’ history of maintaining a hostile, toxic work environment. According to the press release from the Racine’s office, the suit is seeking money damages and a formal release of the findings of the Beth Wilkinson investigation.
While Daniel Snyder and Tanya Snyder have yet to announce that they are indeed selling the controlling equity stake in the franchise, the engagement of Bank of America makes it seem like a foregone conclusion that the former’s days as the most consistently vilified owner in the NFL are likely numbered. Whether he chooses to sell or is forced to do so is up for discussion, but in any event, it’s widely estimated that the Commanders would likely fetch something in the neighborhood of $5.5 billion or more from a potential suitor, whether entertainer and media mogul Byron Allen or America’s favorite “Space Cowboy,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Though Bezos certainly has the means to purchase 100% team several times over, it has been strongly suggested that Snyder would never willingly sell to him because of his contentious relationship with the Bezos-owned Washington Post.
Of course, an offer of $6 billion or more could make most personal squabbles disappear in a hurry.
So, whether the torch of stewardship over the Commanders is passed down willingly or wrested from Daniel Snyder by force, Commanders fans and the people of the DMV are simply hoping at this point that the distinction goes to someone who won’t use it to burn the whole house down.
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