If Commanders owner Dan Snyder is waving a white flag to the NFL, why now?
Late Wednesday afternoon, after most corners of the NFL had absorbed the reports that Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder was exploring a possible sale of his franchise, a high-ranking NFC executive reacted to the news with a twinge of skepticism.
“It might get him past the [December] meetings if he leaked that story,” the executive said. “If he thinks there could be a vote [on his ownership of the team], leaking a story about selling could sway some owners to keep their powder dry. The way he maneuvers, who knows what’s real. Maybe it’s true, but I guarantee there are more people in wait-and-see mode than buying that he just changed his mind all the sudden.”
This reticence is a perfect snapshot of what Snyder represents in the executive suites across the NFL. Few are willing to take a statement at face value. Even fewer are willing to believe there isn’t some self-serving angle in play for the Washington team owner. Skepticism often runs deep, and this NFC executive, who has taken part in multiple team owners meetings, took the news with a grain of salt. Not only did he point out that the story first appeared in Forbes, which has rarely, if ever, been critical of Snyder, he also noted that Washington’s own statement about “consider[ing] potential transactions” was far short of committing to any kind of sale.
That may be true, but there’s little denying that Snyder reacted to this report differently than any in the past suggesting a possible sale of the team. Wednesday’s Commanders statement affirmed that Bank of America Securities has been hired to vet “potential transactions,” and it was disseminated absent any spokesperson denials of a sale being considered. There was also no denial of the Forbes report, which said Snyder had “at least four calls” from groups that were interested in purchasing the Commanders. That sounds like it was sourced inside the team, but the lack of pushback suggests that at the very least, Snyder is fine with the outside world thinking he’s ready to explore a sale.
So that leads to the big question: Why now?
It was just last month that a team spokesperson was anonymously blasting an ESPN report about Snyder being under pressure by other franchise owners, reportedly telling The Athletic, “It’s hard to imagine a piece that is more categorically untrue, and is clearly part of a well-funded, two-year misinformation campaign to coerce the sale of the team, which will continue to be unsuccessful.”
Now, just over two weeks later, the team is essentially saying: “Or maybe it is for sale.”
Failed stadium plan, failing franchise
What changed is simple: Snyder went from a situation where it looked like the league was going to continue the status quo, sanctioning him to whatever limits were necessary to allow his ownership to continue. Then the badly needed stadium move to Virginia — which looked like a lock — fell apart, despite strong bipartisan support. Not only was Snyder’s management of his workplace culture a significant embarrassment to the league, the stain was so significant that it destroyed his political juice to get badly needed infrastructure.
As problematic as everything around Snyder has been, the failure of that stadium project can't be underscored. It’s no secret that NFL franchise owners have been less-than-thrilled that a once proud and rock-solid fan base produced the second-worst gate revenues in the league in 2021, outpacing only the lowly Detroit Lions. What makes that reality look even worse is that Snyder is located in a region that the NFL perceives as one of the top-five markets in the league. A top-five market and 31st overall production at the gate last season is nothing less than disastrous and frustrating for other club owners.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. There have been two significant workplace investigations of the Commanders. One was wildly controversial and arguably rooted in a conflict of interest after the league took over the investigation from the Commanders but continued to use the attorney who Snyder hired to run the probe, Beth Wilkinson. That investigation also rippled into an ongoing lawsuit by former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden against the NFL, for private emails that were leaked to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The second investigation is ongoing and has overlapped a third workplace probe by a congressional oversight committee.
And if that wasn’t enough, testimony from oversight committee hearings has produced a fourth investigation into the team, as ESPN reported Wednesday that a federal probe in Virginia is focusing on potential financial irregularities inside the Commanders franchise. ESPN also reported that those same alleged irregularities have drawn investigations by attorneys general in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
That’s six different investigations, if you lost count. That’s not legal jeopardy. It’s legal emergency.
Now view all of them with the backdrop of a stadium that just cannot appear to get done with Snyder as the team owner. At some point, it was almost inevitable that Snyder would lose support in the ownership ranks. Which, if you believe Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, he already has. Maybe to the point of the club owners not needing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to call for a vote on Snyder’s ownership. According to the Washington Post, Irsay told NFL stakeholders that team owners should determine Snyder’s fate — not Goodell or the league office. All of this is likely fine with the commissioner, given that he avoided raising Snyder’s status in an owners-only session during the league’s meetings in New York last month.
Focus all of that into what Snyder is staring at now: multiple investigations; an owner who spoke publicly on his status more than once; a stadium project that appears dead; and basement-level revenues that are unlikely to change soon. Not to mention endless awkward moments like "Amazon Thursday Night Football" broadcaster Al Michaels surprisingly wading knee-deep into Snyder’s issues during the network’s presentation of Washington’s 12-7 win over the Chicago Bears on Oct. 14, or a recent fan’s obituary including a jab from beyond.
The parting shot of Maryland resident James Darr Jr. last month: “Along with the health and happiness of his family and friends, he wished for nothing more than for [Dan] Snyder to sell the Washington Commanders.”
Timing matters in talk of potential Commanders sale
If Snyder is indeed moving to sell the team, all of that mess would make a compelling argument toward answering “why now?” Not to mention the reality that findings from the congressional oversight committee are forthcoming, as well as the most recent workplace probe by Mary Jo White. There’s also the possibility that some or all of the depositions of Snyder and former team president Bruce Allen in the oversight investigation are put into the public report.
Not only is Snyder aware of that, opposing franchise owners are, too. And there’s no telling if some of them aren’t already aware of the details of what’s coming down the pipeline for public consumption. Perhaps something embarrassing enough to motivate an owner like Irsay to step up public pressure on Snyder, in the hopes of stimulating a sale of the team before all hell breaks loose.
There’s something Nixonian about the walls closing in from seemingly all sides on Snyder. So much so, it’s not hard to imagine some of his remaining allies telling him that he has only two options: Sell the team ahead of the storm; or ride it out and face a vote and messy removal process.
That either/or scenario makes the sale of the team a priority for the other owners and the NFL at large, who now must help Snyder by doing whatever they can to draw a massive offer for his team from the best ownership group possible. Given where the team sits, in the cradle of significant political power, it makes sense that all eyes are poised on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He has the money to easily buy the Commanders for whatever sum is necessary, and the power and clout to lobby whatever game-changing stadium he desires. And Washington is a better fit for Bezos than a team like the Denver Broncos would have been. The location near D.C. dovetails with his business interests, which cross over into politics more than ever. Washington is also still considered a cornerstone market for the league, along with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
For now, that’s all conjecture. But it isn’t being met by outright defiance. Whether it’s legitimate or not, Snyder is at least telling the NFL he’s willing to move on if the right offer comes along. If the league wants him out, the owners who have lined up against him now must help him one last time. If only to help themselves and be rid of him for good.