Power In The N F L

The owner of the Washington Commanders has survived numerous allegations in the image-conscious N.F.L.

By now, this is a familiar story: A powerful Washington denizen scrambles to hold onto his position while facing misconduct accusations. The institution I want to tell you about today, though, is not Capitol Hill or the White House, but the N.F.L. The person: Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Commanders.

Snyder faces allegations of malfeasance, some direct and others under his watch, that are as varied as they are extensive: sexual harassment, racism, witness intimidation, financial malpractice and office dysfunction. The latest round came when ESPN reported last week that Snyder had told people that he had accumulated dirt on other team owners and league personnel.

The saga has significance beyond sports. In a league that is one of America’s most popular cultural institutions, now pulling in about $18 billion in annual revenue, Snyder is one of just 32 team owners who have deep influence over how the N.F.L. conducts itself. So his case is a lesson in how elite figures exercise power, particularly to advance their own agendas.

With each revelation, fans and critics have called on the N.F.L. to step in and make a change. I’ve covered the league for 15 years, and in today’s newsletter, I’ll explain how Snyder has remained in control of the team. (The answer has nothing to do with football success — Washington, a storied franchise that won three Super Bowls in the ’80s and ’90s, has rarely been competitive since. The team is 2-4 this season and last in its division.)

Snyder has denied wrongdoing, and the team asserts that it has transformed its culture, while pointing to an earlier business dispute as the source of its problems. “For over two years there has been an active and well-funded campaign to spread false and malicious stories and accuse Dan Snyder of things that never actually happened in an effort to coerce the Snyders to sell their team,” a Commanders representative said in a statement.

N.F.L. team owners will convene in New York today for a quarterly meeting, where they will almost certainly discuss Snyder, at least informally.

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Snyder has owned the team since 1999, but in recent years his grasp has become more tenuous. As he has resolved some complaints, others have emerged. The image of a mismanaged organization has persisted. The allegations include:

  • Targeting other owners. Snyder instructed his lawyers to hire investigators to gather any damaging information on other owners and even on the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, according to the ESPN report. His lawyers called those details “categorically false.” While such tactics would be unheard-of among the selective club of team owners, there’s no question that Snyder has tested his peers’ patience over the past two years. The mere possibility of his having collected compromising information could give him leverage against fellow billionaires used to privacy.

    Snyder’s representatives have also accused three former part-owners of the team, who sought to sell their stakes in 2020 and were bought out by Snyder last year, of engaging in a smear campaign to force him to sell the team.

  • Sexual harassment claims. More than 40 women have said they were sexually harassed or verbally abused while working for the team, including more than a dozen cited in a pivotal Washington Post article in 2020. The Post also reported that in 2009, the team reached a confidential $1.6 million settlement with an employee who said Snyder had sexually harassed and assaulted her; he denied the allegation. The news came after team cheerleaders told The New York Times in 2018 that they had been required to take part in a topless photo shoot and a night out with male sponsors. Altogether, the accounts showed that a toxic culture had taken hold, and the team said it would investigate.

    The N.F.L. soon took over that inquiry, which affirmed that widespread disrespect and harassment marked the team’s workplace. As a result, the team was fined $10 million and Snyder was told last year to step away from the club’s day-to-day operations. The N.F.L., though, was criticized for keeping the details of its findings private, prompting the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to begin its own investigation, saying that what happens in the N.F.L. has implications for workplaces across America.

    The committee found another claim of sexual harassment against Snyder, which led to a second N.F.L. investigation and which he has also denied.

  • Financial malfeasance. A former employee said the team kept two sets of books to conceal revenue that was supposed to be shared with all 32 N.F.L. clubs. The House committee forwarded the accusation to federal regulators.

  • Personal attacks. The committee also found that Snyder had tried to interfere with the N.F.L.’s first investigation, again by using private investigators, this time to harass and intimidate witnesses, and that he had sought to deflect blame onto Bruce Allen, the longtime team president whom he fired in 2019.

  • Longstanding resistance to changing the team name. For years, Snyder rejected pressure to change the name of the franchise from the Redskins, long considered a racist slur. He relented in 2020 during a national reckoning over race because of pressure from, among others, FedEx, whose name is on the team’s stadium. The franchise went by the Washington Football Team before adopting the Commanders nickname ahead of this season.

The allegations against Snyder have prompted recurring negative headlines for the N.F.L., which is a deeply image-conscious organization.

Snyder has shown no signs of selling the team. Can the league force his hand? Removing Snyder would require a vote by 24 of the league’s 32 clubs, generally a high bar to clear. Some owners are awaiting the results of the ongoing investigations, yet they are also mindful that Snyder has been unable to secure government subsidies to help him build a new stadium. Local lawmakers have cited the turmoil at the club as a reason for backing away from a deal.

You may be wondering: Could a stadium really matter more than accusations of misconduct? That priority for some owners reveals a cynical reality of the N.F.L.: Most everything comes down to money.

Related: The N.F.L. has dealt with many off-field crises. Here’s how it stays popular.

Stephen Speranza for The New York Times
Reuters

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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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