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Why Dan Snyder is in trouble with the NFL, and why it’s hard for his fellow owners to kick him out

Tracking the investigations into Dan Snyder and the Washington Commanders, and his future in the NFL

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NFL: Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Snyder’s tenure as the owner of the Washington football franchise is more in doubt than ever before.

Years of investigations, allegations and explosive reporting have followed the owner and the organization from the NFL league offices to the halls of Congress. As Snyder tries to maintain control over his team — and his place in the league — an Oct. report from ESPN outlined just how far he is willing to go to keep his seat at the table:

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.

How did this situation unfold, and where could the league go from here?

Warning: This story contains references and descriptions of sexual assault allegations

Dan and Tanya Snyder exploring “potential transactions”

On November 2, the Dan and Tanya Snyder, along with the Commanders organization, released a statement indicating that they had retained Bank of America Securities to “consider potential transactions.”

What this means is unclear, and could mean anything from a complete sale of the team to adding additional minority owners. In the statement Dan and Tanya Snyder indicated that they “...remain committed to the team, all of its employees and its countless fans to putting the best product on the field and continuing the work to set the gold standard for workplaces in the NFL.”

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay speaks in favor of removal

At the NFL’s league meetings on Tuesday, Colts owner Jim Irsay came out in favor of removing Snyder as the owner in Washington, and indicated that the necessary votes — more on that in a moment — could be in place.

Irsay also outlined how, in his view, owners have been “painted incorrectly” due to Snyder’s behavior.

Investigation into Washington’s workplace culture

The foundation for the years-long investigation into the Washington organization dates back to May of 2018, when a report surfaced in the New York Times that five former cheerleaders stated they were sexually harassed and intimidated by the team, and team sponsors, during a trip to Costa Rica for a swimsuit calendar photo shoot. According to the report, while topless photographs were not used in the calendar itself, some squad members were required to be topless during the shoot. Others wore only body paint.

And there were spectators, including high-profile sponsors of the team and FedEx suite holders.

According to the Times’ reporting:

Their participation did not involve sex, the cheerleaders said, but they felt as if the arrangement amounted to “pimping us out.” What bothered them was their team director’s demand that they go as sex symbols to please male sponsors, which they did not believe should be a part of their job.

The reporting from the Times touched off an internal investigation by the team into the claims. In September of 2018, the organization announced the findings of the team’s investigation, along with a series of changes into the cheerleader program. Those changes included adjustments to the cheerleaders’ photo-shoot trips, adjustments to their uniforms, and a mission to be more “family friendly.”

Then in July of 2020, The Washington Post published a report of their own, outlining the allegations of 17 women, including 15 former team employees, of sexual harassment by members of the Washington organization. From the Post:

The allegations raised by Applegate and others — running from 2006 to 2019 — span most of Snyder’s tenure as owner and fall into two categories: unwelcome overtures or comments of a sexual nature, and exhortations to wear revealing clothing and flirt with clients to close sales deals. Among the men accused of harassment and verbal abuse are three former members of Snyder’s inner circle and two longtime members of the personnel department.

While Snyder was not accused in the Post’s reporting of sexual harassment, he was blamed for allowing the disturbing culture to develop:

While Applegate and others did not accuse Snyder of acting improperly with women, they blamed him for an understaffed human resources department and what they viewed as a sophomoric culture of verbal abuse among top executives that they believed played a role in how those executives treated their employees.

Snyder routinely belittled top executives, according to three former members of his executive staff, perhaps most intensely Greene, the former sales executive, whom Snyder mocked for having been a cheerleader in college. After one executive staff meeting, according to one former employee, Greene said Snyder had ordered him to do cartwheels for their entertainment.

In the wake of the reporting from The Washington Post, the team retained Washington D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson of the Wilkinson Walsh law firm to “conduct a thorough independent review of this entire matter and help the team set new employee standards for the future.”

The NFL released a statement, calling the allegations “ ... serious, disturbing and contrary to the NFL’s values:”

While Snyder was not directly implicated in the allegations, that changed the next month.

On August 26, 2020, new reporting emerged in The Washington Post. That story included new allegations from 25 additional women, with many speaking directly on the record. The allegations raised in this new report included direct allegations of sexual misconduct against the owner:

One of the women interviewed for this story accused Snyder of directly humiliating her, the first such claim made to The Post. Former cheerleader Tiffany Bacon Scourby said Snyder approached her at a 2004 charity event at which the cheerleaders were performing and suggested she join his close friend in a hotel room so they “could get to know each other better.” Scourby’s account was supported by three friends she spoke to shortly afterward about the alleged incident, including the team’s former cheerleader director.

Other disturbing allegations raised in the Post’s reporting included the creation of videos of outtakes from the cheerleader swimsuit calendar photo-shoots in both June of 2008 and June of 2010.

In “Beauties on the Beach,” the official video chronicling the making of the Washington NFL team’s 2008 cheerleader swimsuit calendar, the women frolic in the sand, rave about their custom bikinis and praise a photographer for putting them at ease in settings where sometimes only a strategically placed prop or tightly framed shot shielded otherwise bare breasts.

What the cheerleaders didn’t know was that another video, intended strictly for private use, would be produced using footage from that same shoot. Set to classic rock, the 10-minute unofficial video featured moments when nipples were inadvertently exposed as the women shifted positions or adjusted props.

The lewd outtakes were what Larry Michael, then the team’s lead broadcaster and a senior vice president, referred to as “the good bits” or “the good parts,” according to Brad Baker, a former member of Michael’s staff. Baker said in an interview that he was present when Michael told staffers to make the video for team owner Daniel Snyder.

Snyder responded with a lengthy statement, stating that the behavior involved in the story “ ... has no place in our franchise, or in our society.” And while Snyder took “full responsibility” for the culture in the organization, he also called the article a “hit job,” and stated that it relied “ ... on unnamed sources and allegations that are largely ten to twenty years old.” He also declared that the team provided the Post with “ ... facts, but those facts clearly didn’t align with their narrative.”

Days later, the NFL announced they would be taking over the Wilkinson investigation.

In late 2020, new reports surfaced regarding the culture in Washington. First Debra Katz, an attorney representing many former Washington employees, stated in court that the NFL recently told Snyder to “back off” in his use of private investigators. Then in December of 2020, The Washington Post reported on a settlement paid by the team to a female former employee:

The Washington Football Team paid a female former employee $1.6 million as part of a confidential settlement in 2009, according to a copy of the agreement reviewed by The Washington Post. The settlement was struck after the woman accused team owner Daniel Snyder of sexual misconduct, a person familiar with the matter said.

The alleged incident occurred on Snyder’s private plane on a flight returning from the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity. In court records filed Monday as part of an ongoing feud among the team’s owners, Snyder’s business partners referenced the woman’s allegation, calling it “a serious accusation of sexual misconduct.”

The revelation of a seven-figure settlement involving Snyder comes as the NFL conducts an investigation into sexual harassment inside the organization he has owned since 1999. That investigation was launched amid multiple Post reports detailing allegations of incidents in the team’s workplace.

In July of 2021, Beth Wilkinson concluded her investigation, leading to the NFL imposing a $10 million fine on Washington as the investigation found a “highly unprofessional” workplace:

Based on Wilkinson’s review, the Commissioner concluded that for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional. Bullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace.

Ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues. In some instances, senior executives engaged in inappropriate conduct themselves, including use of demeaning language and public embarrassment. This set the tone for the organization and led to key executives believing that disrespectful behavior and more serious misconduct was acceptable in the workplace. The problems were compounded by inadequate HR staff and practices and the absence of an effectively and consistently administered process for reporting or addressing employee complaints, as well as a widely reported fear of retaliation. When reports were made, they were generally not investigated and led to no meaningful discipline or other response.

Snyder released a statement after the imposition of the fine, stating that “ ... it is now clear that the culture was not what it should be, but I did not realize the extent of the problems, or my role in allowing that culture to develop and continue.”

Wilkinson’s report was not released.

Snyder might have thought the issue was drawing to a close, but his problems were only beginning. In the fall of 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported on an email sent from Jon Gruden to then-Washington team president Bruce Allen during the 2011 NFL lockout. Gruden was working for ESPN at the time, and used racist language to describe NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.

While Allen had left the organization years prior, the email was one of the approximately 650,000 examined by the NFL during the Wilkinson investigation.

Days later, The New York Times reported on additional emails from Gruden, which included misogynistic and homophobic remarks when discussing players, officials, coaches and Commissioner Roger Goodell. Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in the aftermath.

Included in those emails, many of which were sent to Allen? Photos of topless women, including a photo of two Washington cheerleaders.

When Congress decides to get involved, that is never a good sign. On October 16, 2021, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform decided to get involved. Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, sent a letter to Goodell requesting documents and information on the “hostile workplace culture” in Washington, including a copy of the Wilkinson report.

In February of 2022, new allegations against Snyder surfaced. In a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Tiffani Johnston, a former cheerleader and later an executive with the team, directly implicated Synder of sexual misconduct:

According to Johnston, the owner made unwanted sexual advances toward her at an unspecified work dinner when he placed his hand on her thigh under a table. Johnston said she proceeded to remove Snyder’s hand from her thigh.

Johnston told the committee that later the same evening Snyder attempted to coax her into his waiting limousine before being dissuaded by a colleague who called it “a very bad idea.”

The following day, the Committee released documents obtained during their investigation, including a “common interest agreement” signed by the league and the team, which may have given Snyder the ability to “limit the disclosure of specific findings and recommendations:”

This new information raises doubts about the NFL’s purported commitment to independence, transparency, and integrity in addressing workplace misconduct at the WFT. In light of these developments, we call on the NFL to immediately produce to the Committee the findings of Ms. Wilkinson’s investigation, as well as the documents underlying those findings, so that the Committee can evaluate any workplace misconduct that occurred and the extent to which the NFL may have attempted to conceal those findings.

The team stated that Washington would conduct an internal investigation into the allegations raised by Johnston, but speaking at the Super Bowl, Commissioner Goodell stated “I do not see any way that a team can do its own investigation of itself.”

The next month, new reporting from The Washington Post outlined how the House Committee on Oversight and Reform had added financial impropriety to the list of allegations against Snyder they were investigating.

In April of 2022, The Athletic reported that Jason Friedman, a long-time employee with the organization, testified before the House Committee regarding “alleged financial malfeasance.” On April 12, 2022, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform directed a letter to the Chairperson of the FTC, outlining “ ... evidence of concerning business practices by the Washington Commanders uncovered during the Committee’s ongoing investigation into workplace misconduct at the team.” The letter states that the team, and Snyder, “ ... may have engaged in a troubling, long-running, and potentially unlawful patter of financial conduct that victimized thousands of team fans and the National Football League (NFL).”

In addition, the letter from the House Committee accused the team of keeping two different sets of books, and that Snyder knew of the practice:

Information and documents obtained by the Committee further suggest that the Commanders concealed revenues that were owed to the NFL as part of a revenue-sharing agreement that redistributes revenues to 32 teams in the League and helps set salaries for the League’s football players. According to the former executive, the team maintained “two sets of books”—one that was shared with the NFL but underreported certain ticket revenue, and another internal set of books that included the complete and accurate revenue and was “shown to Mr. Snyder.

Washington vigorously pushed back on the allegations in a letter sent to the FTC, providing over 100 pages of documents in support of their position that the allegations of financial misconduct were “uncorroborated.”

That led to the events of the summer.

Congressional subpoena and testimony

In June of 2022, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform decided it was time to hear from both Commissioner Goodell and Snyder. In a statement released on June 1, 2022, the House Committee invited both Goodell and Snyder to testify at a hearing later that month. According to Representative Krishnamoorthi, “Mr. Snyder and Mr. Goodell need to appear before the Committee to address these issues and answer our questions about the pervasive workplace misconduct at the Washington Commanders, and how the NFL addressed these issues.”

Commissioner Goodell responded to the request, stating that he would appear virtually.

Snyder, however, replied through counsel that he had “ ... a longstanding Commanders-related business conflict and is out of the country.”

Chairwoman Maloney responded, urging Snyder to “ ... reconsider his decision to decline public testimony.”

Snyder, through counsel, again declined to attend the hearing. In a letter from attorney Karen Patton Seymour, Snyder’s attorney again cited scheduling conflicts, stating that “[t]he Committee’s insistence on holding a hearing on a single date that it chose, even at the expense of his right to have his counsel present during testimony, both departs from my understanding of the approach taken with other congressional witnesses in similar circumstances and disregards my client’s due process rights.”

At the end of June, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform released a 29-page report regarding their investigation into Snyder and the workplace culture in Washington. In the report new allegations of misconduct were raised, including the finding that Snyder and his legal team conducted a “shadow investigation,” and in the process built a “dossier” in an effort to discredit accusers, reporters and others involved with the Wilkinson investigation:

This memorandum describes evidence uncovered by the Committee demonstrating that although publicly, the NFL and Commanders touted the hiring of a respected D.C. attorney to conduct an internal investigation of the Commanders toxic workplace, privately, Commanders owner Daniel Snyder launched a shadow investigation in an apparent effort to discredit his accusers in the eyes of the NFL and offer up an alternative target for the investigation. Bound together by an agreement to pursue a common interest and a joint legal strategy, the NFL and Commanders ultimately buried Ms. Wilkinson’s findings.

Commissioner Goodell testified before the House Committee on June 22, 2022. During his testimony he reiterated that the league would not release the Wilkinson report, citing concerns over the privacy of those who participated in the investigation, but wished to remain anonymous.

Following an extensive back-and-forth between Snyder and the House Committee, the owner finally sat for a private deposition at the end of July. Snyder testified in private over a ten-hour period.

ESPN reporting on Snyder’s status as owner

Snyder returned to the news on October 13, 2022. In extensive reporting from ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr., Seth Wickersham and Tisha Thompson, the trio outlined how Snyder “ ... will not lose his beloved franchise without a fight that would end with multiple casualties.”

According to the ESPN report:

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 ESPN report also points to two other items that the owner views as “silver bullets.” A new stadium, and a new quarterback:

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.

Unfortunately for Snyder, those “silver bullets” look like blanks at the moment.

Regarding a new stadium, there was a proposal for a new facility in Prince William County, located in northern Virginia. In this plan, the team proposed a $3 billion complex, including a new domed stadium, a practice facility, high-end shops and apartments. The plan was folded into a bipartisan stadium bill, and versions of the bill passed both the Virginia Senate and the Virginia House last winter. But while a conference committee met to work out differences between the two bills, the February 3, 2022 hearing before the House Committee took place.

The pushback to the stadium bill after that hearing was overwhelming, and the bill was tabled for at least a year:

“The vote got tabled because there wasn’t support for the stadium for a panoply of reasons,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat who had been a longtime fan of the franchise. He also said recently that after initially supporting the stadium, he would have been a “no” vote. “For some people there are some systemic issues. I don’t believe the team has the type of community backing I would expect from a major pro sports franchise and then all the issues with the owner.”

As for the quarterback situation, well, this from the ESPN story might say it all: “Hearing that Snyder hopes a marquee quarterback will chase away all his problems, an owner laughed: ‘Carson Wentz?’ “

Can Snyder be removed?

As someone who works in sports media and lives in the Washington D.C. area, the question I get asked all the time is this: Can Snyder be removed?

Under the NFL’s Constitution, an owner can be expelled from the league. It would require the vote of 24 of the 32 owners for an owner to be removed. As Commissioner Goodell testified during the summer, he lacks the “authority” to single-handedly expel Snyder from the league.

However, as noted by Daniel Wallach, an attorney and legal analyst with The Athletic, Commissioner Goodell can recommend Snyder’s removal to the league’s Executive Committee:”

Would Commissioner Goodell force such a vote? We may know the answer to that question sooner rather than later. As the ESPN story outlined, NFL league meetings are right around the corner:

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.

This story will be updated as it develops.