DAN SNYDER DOES this thing when he feels cornered, say those who know him well. He paces in a hotel suite, or on his superyacht, or at River View, his $48 million Virginia estate. Cradling a drink in one hand, he tells members of his inner circle about the dirt he has accumulated on fellow owners, coaches, executives, even his own employees — all the stuff he’s learned from other sources, including private investigative firms. He never says exactly what he knows, only that in his 23 years as owner of the Washington Commanders, he knows a lot. And that in the zero-sum world of billionaires, this is how you survive. Snyder recently told a close associate that he has gathered enough secrets to “blow up” several NFL owners, the league office and even commissioner Roger Goodell.
“They can’t f— with me,” he has said privately.
Senior team executives and confidants have heard him say it since he was considered merely one of the worst owners in sports. Now that he’s facing investigations on multiple fronts and running out of high-powered allies, he alludes more than ever to the dirty work. Snyder, now 57 years old, has told associates he will not lose his beloved franchise without a fight that would end with multiple casualties.
“The NFL is a mafia,” he recently told an associate. “All the owners hate each other.”
“That’s not true,” one veteran owner says. “All the owners hate Dan.”
Something has to give, possibly as soon as the NFL league meetings in New York on Tuesday. Many owners and top league executives tell ESPN they would like to see Snyder removed as owner. It would clean the slate for a storied team and a cherished fan base and reignite the pursuit for a desperately needed stadium.
But there would be a price.
Backed into a corner
WHY IS DAN Snyder still an NFL team owner? And how has he managed to survive allegations of a toxic club culture, sexual harassment, accounting misdeeds and the bungling of a new stadium proposal that once seemed inevitable and is now met with hard resistance by the public and officials in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.? Those questions have bewildered fans, league and team executives and some fellow owners, and the lawyers for former Commanders employees who say they were victims of the team’s culture of sexual harassment and abuse. “Our clients and the public at large deserve transparency,” said Lisa Banks, attorney for nearly a dozen former team employees and cheerleaders who publicly revealed the team’s toxic culture in 2020 and are still calling for the NFL to make public its investigative report on Snyder. “If not,” Banks said in a statement last year, “the NFL and Roger Goodell must explain why they appear intent on protecting” the team and “Dan Snyder at all costs.”
According to more than 30 owners, league and team executives, lawyers and current and former Commanders employees interviewed by ESPN, the fear of reprisal that Snyder has instilled in his franchise, poisoning it on the field and off, has expanded to some of his fellow owners. Multiple owners and league and team sources say they’ve been told that Snyder instructed his law firms to hire private investigators to look into other owners — and Goodell.
League sources say the NFL is aware that Snyder has claimed to be tracking owners. But none of the owners or sources would reveal how they learned of Snyder’s alleged effort to use private investigators. It’s also unclear how many owners are said to have been targeted, though sources say they believe it’s at least six. One owner was told by Snyder directly that he “has dirt on Jerry Jones,” a team source told ESPN, though the nature of the information was unclear. Another source confirmed that Snyder has told a confidant that he has “a file” on Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner who has served as Snyder’s friend, mentor and longtime firewall of support.
The Commanders declined to make team officials, including Dan Snyder and his wife, Tanya, available for interviews but issued a statement attributed to a group including team employees and law firms. A Commanders spokesperson and outside lawyers denied that Snyder has hired or authorized private investigators to track another team’s owner and league office executives, including Goodell. “This is categorically false,” said John Brownlee and Stuart Nash, partners at Holland & Knight. “He has no ‘dossiers’ compiled on any owners.”
A team spokesperson called it “simply ridiculous and utterly false” that Snyder ever said that he could blow up the league, or that the league “can’t f—” with him, or that “the NFL is a mafia” or “all owners hate each other.”
To the contrary, the spokesperson said, “Owners have a shared love of the game, mutual respect for each other and our organizations, and a strong working relationship.”
ESPN’s reporting “cannot change the team’s great transformation or the Snyders’ commitment to making this transformation permanent,” Brownlee and Nash said in the statement.
Most sources declined to go on the record for this story; Goodell has warned owners that they could be fined millions of dollars for leaking to reporters. Snyder “thinks he has enough on all of them,” says a former longtime senior Commanders executive. “He thinks he’s got stuff on Roger.” Another former Commanders executive routinely called Snyder “the most powerful owner in the NFL” because of what he knows, a source says.
Several owners say that they see the threats about damaging dossiers as a desperate tactic intended to scare owners from voting to remove Snyder. “He’s backed into a corner,” says a veteran owner who says he’s aware Snyder has gathered dirt on some owners. “He’s behaving like a mad dog cornered.”
Counting friends and foes
THE POTENTIAL FOR mutually assured destruction might help explain why Snyder has survived years of scandals. Or it might merely reveal that Snyder is running out of options. He is under attack from multiple fronts: His team, his employees and his own conduct have been investigated by Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the league office twice. At least 24 owners are required to force Snyder to sell his team, a fate that he has told multiple sources he will never accept. An associate who has met with Snyder multiple times recently says Snyder has become “paranoid” about owners and league office executives, and about former employees breaking their non-disclosure agreements and telling investigators and reporters what they know. Snyder sees “evil lurking in every shadow and around every corner,” the associate says. “Someone is always out to get them.”
Snyder’s fears might not be totally unfounded. Jerry Jones recently told confidants that he “might not be able” to protect Snyder any longer. Snyder has also “badmouthed” Jones, telling an owner recently, “he’s only out to get in your pocket. He’ll sell you down the river. You can’t trust him,” a senior executive close to the owner said. “Snyder’s already lost Jerry,” the source added.
In the Commanders’ statement, lawyers denied that Snyder’s relationship with Jones has soured, saying he and Tanya “have a close and strong relationship with Jerry Jones and his entire family” and “great respect and admiration for one another.” “We also understand that certain people believe their own interests will be advanced by convincing news outlets like ESPN to print false information about the Snyders and Joneses,” the Holland & Knight lawyers wrote.
Jones declined to comment for this story, said Jim Wilkinson, a Cowboys spokesman who also declined to comment.
There is a growing consensus around the league that, despite news releases to the contrary, the Commanders have struggled to establish a more inclusive culture. And sources told ESPN they wonder if Jason Wright, the team’s president and the first Black man in NFL history to hold that title, has true authority to fix the team. Current and former team executives say Snyder is still far more involved running the club than most realize, imploring football decision-makers last March to trade for quarterback Carson Wentz — despite a deal he made with Goodell in July 2021, when he was also fined $10 million, to give up day-to-day management to his wife, Tanya.
With Snyder backed into a corner, some owners are now considering creative ways of pushing him aside, including refusing to let him borrow money for a new stadium.
In a bid to shore up support, Snyder has visited a handful of owners around the country, sources say, and he has told associates that he is confident that he won’t be voted out. “As a longtime owner, Dan has the support of many of his peers,” the team spokesperson said. If any such vote about Snyder’s fate is held, it won’t likely be because the commissioner has pushed for one. Goodell has made clear that Snyder’s permanent status is an ownership decision, and he has avoided mentioning Snyder at closed-door meetings. Sources say Goodell is clearly more comfortable challenging owners on issues related to the integrity of the game than the culture of their businesses. Indeed, it galls some owners and league and team executives that the NFL has been in lockstep with Washington on many fronts, “propping up” the franchise, in the words of one owner, by burying attorney Beth Wilkinson’s report about the team’s toxic workplace last year, and by helping the Commanders avoid penalties for repeated violations of the Rooney Rule. It’s clear, one owner says, that Goodell “doesn’t want to touch this.”
“This is what happens when you get into business with bad people,” the owner says about Snyder. “They know he’ll burn their houses down.”
‘He got off on the wrong foot’
“DANIEL SNYDER IS the perfect person.”
That’s what Paul Tagliabue said in May 1999, when the commissioner presided over the sale of the storied Washington franchise for $800 million, making the 34-year-old Snyder the youngest-ever person to buy an NFL franchise. It didn’t take long for some owners to disagree with Tagliabue’s sunny assessment. During the first run of owners meetings he attended, Snyder came across as brash and sharp-elbowed, impatient and disrespectful toward owners twice his age. Asked for his early view of Snyder, a veteran owner now says: “Arrogant. Obnoxious. Standoffish. Selfish.”
But it wasn’t until the 2003 autumn league meetings, held in Chicago, that some owners’ first impressions of Snyder would stick. Snyder delivered an impassioned but barbed argument for the Super Bowl to be played at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, in February 2008. His was a longshot bid. His main competition was Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and his son Michael, who were building a $455 million stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Bidwill family, which has owned the Cardinals since 1932, is beloved among owners, and owners were excited about the new venue in the desert.
In his pitch for a Washington Super Bowl, Snyder spent as much time extolling the virtues of FedEx Field as he did “tearing down Arizona and the Bidwills personally,” an owner recalls. After the Bidwills and Arizona won a secret ballot, Snyder “began yelling at everybody,” angrily telling owners they had made “a big mistake,” an owner says. “Other owners were floored. … He got off on the wrong foot. And not much has changed since then.”
The nearly two decades since have laid bare what critics see as Snyder’s vindictiveness and paranoia, which was well-known within Washington’s front office for most of his ownership. Outside the team, Snyder has been better known for losing seasons and his penchant for micromanaging, despite publicly insisting in 2020 that the team’s culture problem was because he was “admittedly too hands-off as an owner.” He has always insisted on acquiring big names of the moment to save his team, from Deion Sanders to Bruce Smith to Robert Griffin III to Josh Norman to the late Dwayne Haskins, regardless of what his football decision-makers advocated. “I’m the f—ing owner, and if you don’t do this, I’m going to kill you,” he’d sometimes tell high-level football staff half-jokingly, a former team executive says.
Snyder cycled through football regimes but kept certain lieutenants around as forced companions as much as trusted advisers, summoning them at all hours to his estate. In the view of several former Washington executives, he was a lonely man seemingly devoid of true friends. Snyder seemed to value former football operations executive Vinny Cerrato as a gofer, a weightlifting partner and a drinking buddy, but often ripped him in plain view of others and belittled his football intelligence. When Bruce Allen arrived as a team executive in 2009, Snyder appeared to aides and others around the league as jealous of him. Unlike Snyder, Allen was popular among owners, someone they would seek out at league meetings for dinner or drinks. In 2018, Snyder hired Brian Lafemina, a well-liked executive from the league office, to run the business operation. Lafemina testified in his congressional deposition that he felt as if Snyder was jealous of him, too. Lafemina was alarmed by the club’s cultural issues and says he tried to fix them — and lasted only six months before Snyder fired him.
For years, it seemed that Snyder’s biggest off-the-field problem was his stubborn refusal to rename his team. That changed in 2020, when a Washington Post report on the team’s culture included numerous allegations of chronic sexual harassment and multiple incidents of misconduct, including some made by former team cheerleaders who accused team executives of creating videos of them partially nude, making disparaging sexual remarks, asking for dates and telling female employees to flirt with suiteholders.
Snyder dismissed the report as “a hit job.” The team hired Beth Wilkinson, a veteran Washington, D.C., lawyer, to investigate the claims in July 2020. But Snyder was “actively interfering” with the Wilkinson inquiry by using private investigators to “harass and intimidate witnesses,” congressional investigators found. Goodell and the league took over the investigation in August 2020.
The congressional inquiry would later uncover internal documents showing how the league and Snyder’s legal team had secretly struck a deal, known as a “common interest agreement,” that meant both had to sign off before any information was released. This effectively gave Snyder veto power over the release of negative information, as well as “direct access” to influence the Wilkinson investigation, a June 2022 report from the committee said. “This agreement … afforded Mr. Snyder a back-channel to block the release of information and make confidential presentations designed to steer the course of the investigation,” the report said. “The Commanders informed the Committee that Mr. Snyder continued to receive periodic updates throughout the course of the Wilkinson Investigation.”
Documents released by the congressional committee in February show Wilkinson initially signed a retainer promising to deliver “a complete written report,” but Goodell requested she brief him orally. Rather than delivering a written report, Wilkinson ended up reading from notes detailing the findings of her inquiry, according to people with firsthand knowledge.
The NFL still has not made Wilkinson’s findings public despite repeated calls for their release by more than 40 former team employees and a growing list of state and federal lawmakers. Although most owners widely dislike Snyder, many were relieved and hopeful that they had moved past so many negative headlines, especially after Goodell and Snyder reached an agreement on daily management and a fine, sources say. “It did what it had to do,” says an owner of the Wilkinson inquiry. “It was damage control.”
However, some owners saw the sexual misconduct allegations leveled by employees against senior executives — and one, in particular, targeting Snyder — as deeply troubling. In 2009, Snyder settled an allegation with a former team employee for $1.6 million, according to a December 2020 report in The Washington Post. A former team employee accused Snyder of groping her, asking her for sex, and trying to remove her clothes on his plane. Snyder has denied the woman’s claim as “meritless.” His lawyers told ESPN that “as Snyder testified under oath to the House Oversight Committee, an investigation found that the alleged incident never occurred.” They added that Snyder settled with her because it was less expensive than fighting her in court.
Last year, however, Snyder’s lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to keep the woman from discussing the alleged incident with anyone, including Wilkinson, by offering to pay her a second undisclosed sum, Brendan Sullivan Jr., the woman’s lawyer, told ESPN. The offer from Snyder’s lawyers was “flatly rejected,” Sullivan said. Snyder had offered the woman “a substantial sum” that was “in the seven figures,” two sources with firsthand knowledge of the offer said. Lawyers for Snyder denied Sullivan’s allegation of a second offer.
Earlier this year, the woman was interviewed by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who is conducting a new inquiry of Snyder for the NFL, a source added. A former Washington team executive with knowledge of the alleged incident said if all the details of the alleged sexual assault were ever made public, it could be “the tipping point” to Snyder’s removal as owner. It presents a conundrum for those who will decide Snyder’s fate. Ownership sources said some in their ranks are worried that similar inquiries could be made about their own front offices — and that over the course of two decades, Snyder had possibly heard about many of them. “There are 31 guys who are petrified” of Snyder, says a sports executive and longtime friend of Goodell. “If you don’t care about the fraternity, it’s scary.”
A congressional committee, which Snyder’s lawyer blasted last week as an unfair partisan attack, has looked deeply at Snyder and the team for nearly a year. One of the committee’s main concerns is the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up bad behavior. The committee’s damning 29-page report said Snyder “abused the subpoena power of federal courts to obtain private emails, call logs, and communications in an effort to uncover the sources of the Washington Post’s exposes, undermine their credibility, and impugn their motives.”
Snyder used the Wilkinson investigation as “a tip sheet” for his law firms, according to multiple legal and team sources. “The list of people who opposed him became his enemies list,” a former Washington executive says.
‘No way out’
SNYDER’S AFFECTION FOR using private eyes was shown during the congressional investigation, when one of his law firms, Reed Smith, was found to have hired “private investigators to harass and intimidate” dozens of former team employees during the Wilkinson inquiry. Former team employees told investigators that “Mr. Snyder’s use of private investigators intimidated them and discouraged them from participating in the Wilkinson investigation.” The resulting product was a 100-slide presentation made to Wilkinson and the league, dated Nov. 23, 2020, according to the report. The presentation “appears to be based on private text messages, emails, phone logs and call transcripts, and social media posts from nearly 50 individuals.”
Reed Smith is known to deploy every legal weapon on behalf of clients. Multiple sources with firsthand knowledge say that when Reed Smith represented Alex Rodriguez in his lawsuit against Major League Baseball, a private investigator was hired to track commissioner Rob Manfred. Reed Smith partner Jordan Siev told ESPN in a statement that the firm is “not aware of any investigator having been engaged to investigate” Manfred, and he said he had “no knowledge of any efforts to investigate or compile information” on NFL owners, executives or Goodell. Siev did not respond to questions about whether Reed Smith commissioned investigations of former Commanders employees.
In recent months, Snyder has told close confidants that his private investigators dug up incriminating information about Goodell, other unnamed league office executives and an unknown number of owners. League and ownership sources say there’s lots of gossip and speculation about what investigators could have unearthed, but some wonder whether Snyder actually has anything at all and is bluffing as a scare tactic.
Anything that came out would likely be in the form of a leak to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, because, multiple league and team sources say, Snyder hates The Washington Post.
Jon Gruden’s emails containing racist, misogynistic and anti-gay language were leaked to The Wall Street Journal in early October 2021. A few days later, Bruce Allen’s emails were leaked to The New York Times, and Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.
There has been no proof that a person linked to Snyder was behind those leaks. Congress’ report found that, in an attempt to deflect blame onto Allen, Snyder’s attorneys gave the NFL 400,000 emails from an account used by Allen, whom Snyder fired in December 2019. During the Wilkinson inquiry, Snyder and his attorneys identified specific “inappropriate” emails within the set of 400,000 that “they purportedly believed demonstrated that Mr. Allen should have been the main target of the Wilkinson investigation,” the congressional report said, adding that the NFL also confirmed that Snyder’s lawyers were arguing that Allen “had created a toxic environment at the Washington Commanders.” Allen declined to comment through an associate, while Gruden declined to comment through his attorney.
Half a dozen owners and league executives say they believe that the leaks occurred on Snyder’s order or with his blessing. Last fall, some of Reed Smith lawyers told colleagues about how they sorted Allen’s emails into categories, including one for possible public relations use, the colleagues said. Siev of Reed Smith denied the firm sorted the emails or played any role in a leak, “nor to the best of our knowledge has any representative of the Commanders or the Snyder family.” Gruden has filed a lawsuit against Goodell and the league in Nevada, alleging that Goodell ordered the leak that ended his coaching career — even though the commissioner denied in an owners-only session last year that the league leaked them.
Sources say the notion of Snyder claiming to possess damaging information — and threats he might use it — has outraged some owners, but only to a point. Before league meetings in Atlanta in May, owners were “counting votes” to oust Snyder, USA Today reported. One owner says now that a meeting was being planned then to discuss Snyder’s fate. But when the spring sessions began, no Snyder meeting was convened and no vote was considered, much less taken. Some sources blame the inaction on the fact that Tanya Snyder missed the May league meeting, and they felt it would be inappropriate to debate Washington’s ownership without anyone from the club present. Other owners say her presence at subsequent meetings made it impossible to have an honest discussion.
Still, owners and team executives say they are impressed by her for twice “taking a bullet” for her husband in closed-door apologies for the team’s toxic culture — while assuming the role of her husband’s chief defender publicly and privately. In a statement, Snyder’s lawyers said, “Tanya, a breast cancer survivor, is one of the most capable business leaders in America, and she and Dan will continue to work to improve all aspects of the team — in the front office and on the field.”
In recent weeks, Snyder has personally and repeatedly asked Jones to have his back and to persuade fellow owners not to throw him out. But a source says Jones told Snyder he might not be able to help, indicating that support for Snyder has slipped. (When discussing Jones’ lack of support, Snyder snapped to a confidant: “Jerry has his own problems.”) The source says, “Dan has to make his own defense with owners.” Asked if Snyder had reached out to Jones about this story, Cowboys spokesman Jim Wilkinson declined to comment.
Around owners, Jones has been careful not to defend Snyder’s character, instead praising how hard Snyder is working to “right the ship” and trying to build a new stadium. “It’s the best thing he can say — he’s trying,” an executive who has been in the meetings says of Jones’ defense. The executive adds that team owners are willing to look the other way on Jones’ own issues, including a Cowboys cheerleader voyeurism scandal involving a senior executive reported by ESPN earlier this year and a lawsuit by a 25-year-old woman who says Jones is her father, because his ingenuity and vision for growing the NFL pie has made rich men richer.
The opposite is true with Snyder. Owners and league executives have repeatedly bemoaned the business woes in Washington, which was once one of the league’s best markets. Some owners seem more bothered by Snyder’s poor financial showing than they are by the sexual misconduct allegations, while acknowledging, as one owner said, that the toxic workplace issues are “not a good look for the league.”
“His gate is the lowest in the league, his revenues are significantly low and trending lower,” a veteran owner says. “He is costing his fellow owners significant money.” Under Snyder’s watch, FedEx Field has reduced capacity from more than 90,000 seats to around 64,000 this year. Although the team spokesperson said the team’s business prospects have turned around, including a doubling of season-ticket holders and a 30% increase in sponsorships, owners said they haven’t seen evidence of improvement.
Multiple ownership and team sources complain that ticket sales for about half those remaining seats are controlled by ticket brokers, the highest ratio in the NFL. “He’s a partner — and he’s not pulling his end of the partnership,” a senior executive of a rival team says.
“Some owners aren’t liked in their cities because their team is losing,” the veteran owner explains. “That goes with the territory. Snyder isn’t liked because of what he has done to that franchise, with all its history. The stadium is falling apart. The team is underperforming. He can’t get a new stadium. There’s no way out. … He may have passed the point of no return.”
When asked whether his fellow owners would forgive Snyder for the team’s financial woes and the toxic culture scandal if Snyder could build a new stadium, the owner quickly replied, “Yes.”
Asked if Snyder is aware of that, the owner said, “Yes.”
‘A gang that can’t shoot straight’
“THAT STADIUM IS a disaster,” a senior team executive says of FedEx Field, the home of the Commanders. “That’s the worst stadium in the NFL, by far.” Last season, a railing gave way and Eagles fans collapsed onto the field, nearly hitting Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts. Some of those fans have sued the Commanders.
To owners, Snyder’s failure to get a new stadium has become a major vulnerability — and with no easy solution in sight, some owners are quietly preparing to exploit it.
It wasn’t long ago that Snyder had so much leverage that the governments of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. were competing to devote public funds for a new stadium. More than three years ago, Maryland’s governor offered to help Snyder negotiate the purchase of federal land near the MGM casino and Gaylord hotel complex along the Potomac River, but Snyder was disinterested — a decision that galls some current owners and league executives now.
Last winter, Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin received an invitation from Snyder to visit his mansion, which sits on a 16½-acre property once owned by George Washington and that has been called the “most expensive home ever sold in Virginia.” Ebbin, who represents Snyder’s district, arrived one afternoon about two months before the start of the legislative session. Snyder showed Ebbin photos of other state-of-the-art new stadiums around the country, making clear that he wanted one of his own. Snyder’s goal was for a bill that would create a stadium authority that would leverage taxpayer dollars into the creation of a massive commercial development project with a stadium at the center. But when Ebbin pushed Snyder on specifics, like how much tax revenue a new stadium would bring in and what it would ultimately cost taxpayers, Snyder had no answers. Nor did Snyder’s chief of staff or two lobbyists also present at his house that day. “It was a weird meeting,” Ebbin says.
By February, after the Commanders had raised their spending on lobbyists in Richmond from $10,000 during the previous legislative session to $100,000 in this year’s session, Snyder’s proposal appeared to have sufficient bipartisan support. The plan called for a $3 billion complex, including a 55,000-seat domed stadium, an outdoor amphitheater, high-end shops and apartments and a practice facility. Two of Virginia’s most powerful lawmakers — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — had agreed to co-sponsor the stadium bill, and the governor supported the deal. “They presented it as a fait accompli,” says Virginia Del. Marcus Simon. The quick bipartisan support, despite all of Snyder’s negative headlines, was a naked display of pro football’s grip on America.
By March, both the state House and Senate had passed the bill. The stadium bill faced only a conference committee to iron out differences. But lawmakers underestimated a public outcry following the Feb. 3 congressional roundtable at the U.S. Capitol, where five female former employees described numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, both against the team’s former senior executives and Snyder himself.
Lawmakers’ inboxes were flooded by Virginians, many citing the inquiry. “Using taxpayer funding to pay for anything having to do with this stadium is morally reprehensible,” one resident wrote in an email. Wrote another: “Not one penny. … The owner is the sleaziest of the sleazy.”
Prince William County Supervisor Kenny Boddye, who represents the prime spot where the Commanders wanted to build, sent out a survey in June that found 85% of 850 residents surveyed opposed building Snyder’s stadium, according to documents obtained by ESPN.
Within weeks, Snyder’s bill died an unusual death, unable to escape the conference committee because its sponsors couldn’t whip the votes to send it to the governor. “I think lawmakers didn’t realize this was going to be such a loser,” Ebbin says.
“How toxic do you have to be to have the Senate majority leader and the House appropriations chair to sponsor your bill, and you can’t get a vote on it?” Simon says.
Snyder was now stuck. FedEx Field is in Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan said in March that he would refuse to engage in a bidding war for a new stadium. And just as the Virginia deal was blowing up, D.C. Council President Phil Mendelson and a majority of the council announced they would oppose construction of a stadium, which the team lobbied for over the past year, unless the NFL releases the Wilkinson report. “If we just ignore that,” Mendelson says, “then in a way, we are abetting the abuse. I don’t want to be part of that. Release the report.”
In late May, the Commanders tried to force Virginia’s hand with a maneuver that felt to some lawmakers like a coordinated leak to reveal the team had purchased 200 acres in Boddye’s district for $100 million. It turned out that Snyder had purchased only an option to buy the land, an apparent hedge if Virginia’s support cratered.
Instead of encouraging lawmakers to push through the stadium bill, news of the land deal rattled Virginia lawmakers who had assumed they were being used as leverage. “It backfired,” Simon says. “It did lend to this feeling of a gang that can’t shoot straight. … Either they don’t know or they’re not telling the truth — neither of which is good.”
Fellow owners, many of whom have built stadiums with far less leverage over local governments, were surprised and bemused that Snyder had managed to blow a bill once championed by Virginia’s most powerful politicians. Now, a growing number of owners on the league’s finance committee are plotting to use the debacle against him.
Owners know that Snyder likely can’t build a stadium without significant financial help. Even if he were to sell ownership stakes in the team, essentially making a cash call on a team valued by Forbes to be the NFL’s sixth highest at $5.6 billion, Snyder would still likely fall short. There are league rules in place limiting how much debt owners can carry, but owners have approved debt limit waivers for new stadiums, often making up rules as they go.
A few owners and executives have discussed a rarely enacted option: refusing to let Snyder bypass league rules on how much debt an owner can hold, and possibly withholding the $200 million loan normally available to teams for new stadiums. They say their hope would be to force Snyder into either selling the team or, more likely, transferring ownership permanently to Tanya. They point out that Donald Sterling was forced out of LA Clippers ownership after his racist comments in 2014 not by commissioner Adam Silver or by his fellow owners, but because his wife removed him as a member of the family trust.
“The league’s only real tool is to starve him from the funds to build a stadium,” a team president says. If owners wanted to trip up Snyder on his debt, a vote they took in March 2021 could give them cover, multiple executive and ownership sources say. Owners allowed Snyder to borrow $450 million to buy out his limited partners — some of whom he was feuding with in court. “I was surprised they let him do that,” says one senior executive with deep ties to both league and ownership.
That vote, sources say, could be used to deny Snyder a new waiver — and as a backdoor way to force a vote that might garner 24 votes more easily, and faster, than a removal from ownership. It’s easier for owners to express concerns over Snyder’s finances than other issues, sources say.
“It all comes down to a vote,” the executive says. “And there are no rules they have to follow.”
Problem is, there are no rules Snyder has to follow, either.
The rules are different
ON JUNE 22, Goodell testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Goodell later told associates in colorful language that he couldn’t believe that he had to testify as Snyder was on his yacht, dodging Congress. Snyder’s 305-foot yacht Lady S, which rents at $1.4 million per week with a 33-person crew, was off the French coast near Cannes that day, according to navigational data. During the hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib asked Goodell point-blank about Snyder’s fate: “Will you remove him?”
“I don’t have the authority to remove him, Congresswoman,” Goodell replied, displaying irritation.
But under the NFL Constitution, Goodell has the authority to recommend the removal of an owner to the other 31 owners. He later testified that he was “not aware” of any option for Snyder’s removal being discussed among owners.
Goodell has shown little initiative to play any role in kicking out Snyder, despite the sentiment of league staff, many of whom are furious about allegations of the Commanders’ toxic environment and Snyder’s own behavior, both alleged and confirmed. They are disgusted at having to work on behalf of Snyder and the likes of Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who rewarded Deshaun Watson with a $230 million fully guaranteed contract a year after he was accused of improper sexual behavior by more than two dozen massage therapists. But as another executive familiar with Goodell’s thinking says: “When it’s an owner in the crosshairs, the rules are different.”
Goodell is always taking the temperature of owners, and his main job is to protect them. He won’t put Snyder’s fate to a vote unless he knows the result wanted by three-quarters of the owners, says a team executive close to Goodell: “But I know Roger wants this off his plate — he wants Snyder gone tomorrow.”
Snyder’s fate rests in the owners’ hands, and despite their anger toward him, they are apprehensive to remove a fellow owner. They tend to move slowly on any initiative not intended to turn an instant profit.
Owners and executives tell ESPN they’re annoyed that Snyder has flaunted how little he cares about his league penalties. Goodell has not used the word “suspended” when publicly discussing Snyder’s departure, but usually says he is “stepping away.” Snyder’s lawyers told ESPN that his mutually agreed separation from the team has ended, and they added that the decision to have Tanya attend recent league meetings was Snyder’s “and is not as a result of any requirement imposed by the NFL.” In fact, they added, Snyder is no longer under any NFL restriction related to his involvement with the team. Snyder has attended every Washington game this season.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy declined to answer questions about whether Snyder’s suspension has ended, saying in a statement that Goodell’s decisions have been “based on a comprehensive workplace review conducted by Beth Wilkinson and the grounds were identified in the public statements made at the time that the discipline and remedial measures were announced.” But a league source says Goodell is operating under the premise that Snyder is still under active investigation and the limits imposed upon him will continue. Snyder recently asked permission to attend league meetings again, resuming his old post next to Jones at the table. But Goodell has said no.
The league has quietly gone out of its way to help Snyder through this period of turmoil, irritating some owners and executives. In 2020, the NFL flagged two Snyder hires — Julie Donaldson to vice president of media and the elevation of longtime Snyder aide Terry Bateman to executive vice president and chief marketing officer — as violations of the Rooney Rule. Both Donaldson and Bateman are white. At the time, the rule mandated that both a minority and a woman be interviewed for executive positions. If a league inquiry found Rooney Rule violations, it could have cost Snyder money and draft picks. But neither happened.
Snyder’s strategy is to “run out the clock” on the congressional and league investigations, betting that Democrats will lose control of the House in January, ending the committee’s interest in his franchise, a person close to Snyder says. Entering October’s league meetings in New York, Snyder told an associate that he’s cautiously optimistic that he’ll survive the ongoing league inquiry by Mary Jo White, now entering its ninth month. It’s not clear when she will complete her inquiry. A looming factor is the question of what White finds around Snyder’s alleged sexual assault of the woman on his plane in April 2009.
What everybody else sees
THINGS ARE DIFFERENT now. Such is the refrain from team executives when confronted by nagging questions about the Commanders’ controversies. New people, diverse in background, race, gender and experience, are now running the team. The Snyders have pledged that the toxic culture that Dan Snyder is accused of helping to foster is over, replaced by a new regime that values transparency, diversity and respect for women.
In August 2020, Jason Wright — a former player and executive at McKinsey & Co. — was announced as team president, a historic hire that, sources say, came on the recommendation of the league office just weeks before the NFL took over the Wilkinson inquiry. “They placed him,” an executive with knowledge of the hire says. Executives and owners who spoke to ESPN were happy for Wright, who they say is well-liked and well-qualified for the job. But they were livid that the league had tacitly aided a team that should have been punished for suspected violations of the Rooney Rule. In the team statement to ESPN, Wright is quoted as saying that he knew the Snyders from previous consulting work and “was hired as a result.”
In its 1,400-word statement to ESPN, the team’s new spokesperson extolled Wright’s leadership for making the team’s front office more diverse and inclusive and improving the team’s culture. “This organization changed years ago and is a model for what committed leadership can do to transform a workplace when problems are raised to their attention,” Wright said in the statement provided by the team, adding that he feels “fully empowered” and citing a positive report from a consultant hired by the team. Tanya has said Wright has full authority to change personnel so Washington can become the “gold standard,” in Wright’s words. Snyder’s lawyers say Wright has done such a good job that “there has been little need for Dan to involve himself in the Team’s operations.”
But owners, league and Commanders sources told ESPN they don’t believe the team can truly be different as long as Snyder owns it and still runs it by issuing instructions on a team landline inside his Virginia mansion. They question whether Wright has actually been empowered to make change.
Wright was supposed to be in charge of the stadium initiative. But after Snyder was punished by Goodell, he announced he would lead all stadium efforts, confusing local lawmakers who didn’t know whom they should be talking to. Before he left the team last month for an executive position in private equity, Greg Resh, the Commanders’ former COO and a vital member of Snyder’s inner circle, told executives at league meetings that he was in charge and dismissed Wright as a figurehead. In the team’s statement, Resh denied making “any such comments.”
Wright’s influence was also in question during the DEA investigation into whether Washington’s head trainer, Ryan Vermillion, was illegally dispensing narcotics — known around the team as the “forgotten investigation.” Sources say Wright and chief people officer Andre Chambers wanted to remove Vermillion in early 2021 — months before the DEA raided Vermillion’s home and the Commanders’ facility — when then-head team physician Robin West alleged that he was being verbally abusive toward her and other staff. But when they raised Vermillion’s behavior with head coach Ron Rivera, he refused to fire the trainer, making clear it was his call alone. Snyder, desperate for stability, had given Rivera power over all football operations when he was hired in 2020. “Our hands are tied,” Wright told people in the organization. (A team spokesperson denied that Wright made that statement.) In August, Vermillion, who declined comment to ESPN through his attorney, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement after he was accused of unlawfully acquiring and dispensing oxycodone. Only then did Rivera terminate Vermillion, calling the situation “unfortunate.”
Wright has privately told associates that he feels he can’t enact serious cultural change until the ownership situation is resolved. Executives around the league believe that Wright has hired good people in Washington, only to watch them leave for the same reasons they always seem to leave: the culture. Vice president of corporate communications Ashley Whitlock and senior vice president of external affairs and communications Julie Andreeff Jensen, two of the team’s most visible woman employees, have left the team within the past year.
When people close to Snyder are asked why he won’t just move on with the multibillion-dollar fortune he’d earn from a sale, the answer is elemental: “It’s his identity,” a source says. He’s in an elite club, full of glass houses. And Snyder not only has no shame, the source says, he simply doesn’t care that he’s hated. In fact, he revels in it. A senior executive who knows Snyder says, “I keep wondering: Why is he still doing this? Why isn’t he selling the team? There is no way out. There’s no end game. … That’s his character flaw — he can’t look in the mirror and see what everybody else sees.”
Snyder has for years told people close to him that both a new stadium and a true franchise quarterback are silver bullets. “All my problems will be solved if I can just get a marquee quarterback,” he told an associate last winter. This past March, Washington traded second-, third-, and conditional third-round picks to the Colts for Carson Wentz, a quarterback who in 2017 appeared to be on the verge of being a superstar but whose fortunes have since sunk. It was a stiff price for a soft-market quarterback — all familiar marks of Snyder’s penchant for overpaying and negotiating against only himself. Sources familiar with the deal say that it was Snyder who pushed for Wentz — and Commanders football staffers have told people around the league as much. “It was 100% a Dan move,” says a source with knowledge of the inner workings of the deal. But in the team’s statement to ESPN, Rivera insisted that he had brought the idea of acquiring Wentz to Dan and Tanya, who supported it. “They love this game and this team,” Rivera said.
Hearing that Snyder hopes a marquee quarterback will chase away all his problems, an owner laughed: “Carson Wentz?”
Friends and rivals
TWO GAMES, ONE at home and one away, in late September and early October, provided the clearest glimpses of where the Commanders are and where they are headed.
When the Commanders hosted the Eagles on Sept. 25, many of the seats at FedEx Field were filled with green and white. It felt like an Eagles home game. As a protest of the ramshackle state of FedEx Field, Eagles fans wrapped themselves in yellow caution tape, which the Commanders sent security officials to confiscate. The Eagles also sent their security chief to hold on to the railing as Hurts jogged into the tunnel. After the loss, in which Wentz was sacked nine times, Washington players lamented that the opposing crowd noise impacted the game. But afterward, some on the business side of the Commanders seemed oddly at peace. All they want is a full stadium, and they came close to it, even if it felt like a neutral-site game.
A week later, Washington visited Dallas. The game itself, which Washington again lost, and in which Wentz played poorly, was almost an afterthought to what preceded it. During pregame warm-ups, Snyder, Tanya and Wright stood at midfield, laughing and listening to Jerry Jones, who stood stiffly. Standing to Jones’ left, Snyder smiled and looked tanned and relaxed. There was no sign of conflict or unresolved issues during the visit that lasted only a few minutes. The group posed for a photo, and Jones mustered a half-smile. Washington’s social media team posted it, saying: “Friends and rivals for 24 years.”
The post was a statement about the team’s future as much as its past. As Snyder rode away after the game in a vast motorcade, it was clear that the photo will also stand as a statement on Snyder’s status in the league until fellow owners decide his fate — or, until they own the fact that the decision likely has already been made.
ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino and reporter John Keim contributed to this report.
Seth Wickersham, Don Van Natta Jr. and Tisha Thompson are senior writers for ESPN. Reach them at [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]. On Twitter, find them at @sethwickersham, @DVNJr and @TishaESPN.