Private Infighting Roils Owners of Washington N.F.L. Team
Private Infighting Roils Owners of Washington N.F.L. Team
Michael MacCambridge spent five years writing his 2005 history of the N.F.L., visiting team after team around the country. From the stability of the Pittsburgh Steelers to the emerging dynasty in New England, he learned that great franchises thrived and overcame obstacles with a mix of talent, trust and patience.
And then there is the Washington Football Team.
MacCambridge said that rarely in his travels did he see a team confronting as many problems as Washington is now. Like many N.F.L. team owners, Daniel Snyder has faced his share of losing on the field and scandals in the front office during his 21-year stewardship of the club. Some problems were the result of bad luck. Others were self-inflicted.
Snyder, though, is now juggling calamities on several fronts. In just the past few months, he ditched the team’s 87-year-old name and logo after a revolt by sponsors, hired a law firm to investigate reports of sexual harassment in the front office and began a legal battle that has implicated a limited partner who is trying to sell his shares in the franchise. Most recently, the head coach he hired to revive the team said he would lead while undergoing cancer treatment.
“The Washington Football Team is like Charlie Brown trying to fly his kite and getting it caught in the tree,” said MacCambridge, the author of “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.” “There have been teams that were historically bad. The frustration that the fans in Washington are experiencing is that they’ve been waiting an awful long time to get a sense that their club has a positive sense of direction, and they’re still waiting.”
At the start of the year, Snyder, who declined to be interviewed for this article, began what seemed like a modest overhaul: another attempt to pull his franchise out of the dumps. But weeks before the start of the 2020 N.F.L. season, his team has been rocked by cataclysmic events, any of which would amount to a crisis. Taken as a whole, they have forced Snyder to rethink previously intractable positions and go on the attack against threats to his stewardship of the team, real or perceived.
In the century-long history of the N.F.L., rarely has a team faced this much turmoil at once.
A football overhaul gives way to a reckoning on race.
After finishing the 2019 season with a 3-13 record and failing to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, Snyder started to rebuild by firing his longtime team president, Bruce Allen, and in December 2019 bringing in Ron Rivera, who had spent nine seasons coaching the Carolina Panthers, to fix the team’s performance.
Rivera, who is highly regarded among N.F.L. peers as a straight shooter, started with a tall task by normal football standards. He is the 10th coach to lead the team since Snyder arrived in 1999, a tenure during which the team finished above .500 only six times. More than 20 quarterbacks have started games for Washington in the past two decades.
Rivera’s job grew more difficult, and stranger, by the week. He renovated the sideline, bringing in his own coordinators, position coaches, scouts and talent evaluators.
Then FedEx joined with other sponsors in calling on Snyder to change the team’s name, going further to threaten to end its $8 million per year sponsorship of FedEx Field, Washington’s stadium. Snyder had previously dug in his heels, telling reporters in 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
He had maintained that stance even in the face of pushback from activists, politicians and some fans, but finally relented in mid-July.
Snyder hints at an ownership coup.
Behind the scenes of what seemed to be a shift caused by societal change, Snyder had been at war with Frederick W. Smith, the FedEx chairman.
Smith, Dwight Schar, a real estate developer, and Robert Rothman, an asset manager, collectively own 40 percent of the franchise and have been members of Snyder’s inner circle since they bought into the team in 2003. But they have been looking to divest for many months.
Snyder took umbrage and several months ago removed them from the board. Aggrieved, the three men asked the N.F.L. to resolve the matter, and other issues. The commissioner’s office appointed an arbitrator in late June, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly. The N.F.L. declined to comment.
Selling small stakes in N.F.L. teams is hard because prospective buyers have to spend millions of dollars but often do not receive voting rights. The economic slowdown in the spring whittled the field of potential big spenders, but a sale of the entire franchise, rather than a piecemeal sell-off, would net a higher fee for all involved.
In legal filings in the past month, Snyder has claimed there is an effort to discredit him, presumably to increase the pressure on him to sell. Snyder has no intention of doing so, according to two people who speak with him regularly but spoke on condition of anonymity.
Schar and Rothman did not respond to requests for comment. Through a spokesman, Smith declined to comment for this article.
Snyder has not denied the main elements of an article The Washington Post published last month that detailed claims from 15 women that they were sexually harassed while employed by the team. Snyder hired the law firm Wilkinson Walsh to review the claims, which included numerous accusations of misconduct and abusive behavior by several team executives and football personnel over more than a dozen years.
The team’s longtime play-by-play announcer, Larry Michael, retired, and Alex Santos, the director of pro personnel, and Richard Mann II, the assistant director of pro personnel, were fired. All three were accused of sexual harassment by former team employees, according to the article.
The article, though damning, did not confirm any of the salacious rumors about Snyder that circulated before its publication on an internet news site, social media and message boards.
An Indian media company published articles that purported to link Snyder with the sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, and one made reference to sex trafficking allegations against Snyder in its headline. While the team owner could do little about the speculation on social media accounts that referenced these articles, Snyder demanded that the website, Media Entertainment Arts WorldWide, remove the articles. The company complied.
In August, Snyder filed a defamation lawsuit in New Delhi against M.E.A. WorldWide in an attempt to force the company to disclose the source of the articles and whether it was paid to publish them.
Nirnay Chowdhary, a founder of the company, told The New York Times that “some sort of errors” were made in the posts about Snyder. But he denied that his company was paid to run the articles and said there would be an investigation of the situation.
Last week, the judge in the case gave M.E.A. WorldWide four weeks to provide an affidavit that disclosed its sources, according to a court document.
In connection to the lawsuit in India, Snyder’s lawyers have sought permission in United States federal court to conduct discovery inquiries to learn, among other things, if Schar was part of a scheme to leak negative stories about Snyder.
The search for motive heads to court.
To make that link, Snyder’s lawyers have zeroed in on Mary-Ellen Blair, an executive assistant to Snyder before she left the team in 2017. They claim that beginning in May or June, Blair contacted former colleagues to ask if they had heard about forthcoming articles about Snyder.
Blair, who has during her career worked for a number of powerful executives, including Arn Tellem and Harvey Weinstein, told a personal employee of Snyder’s and two other team employees that “she was in contact with and working in coordination with a third party” and that they were involved in articles that were going to be damaging to Snyder, according to the motion to conduct discovery in the defamation suit.
According to a transcript of one call which was recorded, Blair said that Schar had called her to let her know The Washington Post would be publishing an article damaging to Snyder.
Snyder has also contended in court documents that Blair has a “financial benefactor” providing her discounted rent in luxury apartment buildings in Virginia. Snyder has asked for Blair’s rent records from the company that manages the buildings, Comstock Holdings.
Lisa Banks, a lawyer for Blair, said that her client paid the market rate for her apartments herself and was not involved in any way in the articles published in India. Banks said that Snyder’s focus on Blair is “an attempt to intimidate not only my client, but also those who might speak poorly about Dan Snyder to legitimate media outlets, including his former employees and business partners.”
The founder and chief executive of Comstock, Christopher Clemente, is Schar’s son-in-law. Clemente said that there was nothing to hide and that Snyder was trying to create a distraction from the investigation of the team’s front office.
“Dan Snyder could have just called me and asked for the information and I would have told him,” Clemente said, adding that he has known Snyder for years. “Why he’s doing it in the press and in the courts is because he’s just trying to stir something up and deflect from the drama that goes on at Redskins Park.” (In a filing, Comstock asked the court to deny Snyder’s request for discovery, calling it a “speculative fishing expedition.”)
Clemente said that Blair pays market rent. He and his father-in-law together are the principal owners of a Comstock division that manages assets including the apartment building Blair lives in, but Clemente said Schar has no hand in the day-to-day operations.
Clemente questioned the motives of Norman Chirite, who served as general counsel to the Washington team from 2002 to 2005 and joined the Comstock board in 2004. Chirite stepped down from his role with Comstock two days before the M.E.A. WorldWide suit was filed and returned to work for Snyder full time. Clemente said Chirite may have broken board governance rules if he assisted Snyder in litigation that could involve Comstock.
Chirite did not respond to a request for comment.
The N.F.L. season is approaching.
Even as Snyder continues his legal battle, he has made several hires charged with making serious changes to the club’s culture. They include Jason Wright, first Black team president in league history, and Julie Donaldson, a white woman, who became senior vice president for media and a game day radio broadcaster, replacing Larry Michael, one of the male team employees accused of harassment. Terry Bateman, who is white, was brought on to run the team’s marketing.
After Bateman and Donaldson were hired in late July, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in football, asked the N.F.L. to confirm that the team followed Rooney Rule guidelines that require at least one person of color or one woman, or both, to be interviewed for any open senior level positions. The N.F.L. is continuing to investigate.
When the Washington Football Team plays the Philadelphia Eagles in its first game of the regular season on Sept. 13, it will do so in a fan-free home stadium, led by a coach battling cancer. The franchise will most likely still be searching for a new team name and logo, awaiting the results of an independent investigation of sexual harassment in the front office, and court rulings in the United States and India.
Football will, for once, be the least troubling issue Snyder faces in Washington.