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Dan Snyder Is Sailing Away From Consequences That Might Never Come

After avoiding a subpoena while on his mega-yacht, Snyder will finally meet with Congress this week about the Commanders’ toxic workplace culture. But it’s a jury of his fellow owners who could determine what will come next—and what kind of precedent that would set.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The history of wealthy people avoiding consequences by living in international waters is surprisingly long and doesn’t reflect well on Dan Snyder. Like various Russian oligarchs, tax evaders, and L. Ron Hubbard before him, the Washington Commanders owner has reportedly taken up semi-permanent residence on the seas, specifically on his mega-yacht, the Lady S. Snyder may argue that he is merely enjoying the Mediterranean on his $180 million pleasure boat—which this month has been located near Sicily, Monaco, and Portofino—but for much of the summer, it proved rather convenient as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform tried, and failed, to serve Snyder with a subpoena. The yacht gambit has yielded a critical legal victory for Snyder: If he’d been served, he would have been forced to testify in front of Congress. But because he successfully dodged the subpoena on the high seas, he was able to choose to appear before Congress voluntarily, which means he will be able to choose which questions he answers. He can even appear via Zoom—perhaps from the sundeck of the Lady S—and face questions about the workplace culture inside his NFL franchise.

Some owners oversee unsuccessful football teams; others are off-field embarrassments. Snyder is both. Before Snyder entered the picture, the Washington NFL franchise was one of the most successful in the league, winning three Super Bowls from 1982 to 1991. From the time of the AFL-NFL merger until Snyder bought the team in 1999, Washington had the fourth-most playoff wins of any franchise. Since then, however, it’s won just two playoff games, none since 2006. Snyder also spent decades advocating for the team’s former name, which was a racist slur for Native people.

He’s also cheap, and has a tendency to hold on to other people’s money: He has reportedly withheld money from Washington’s minority owners, concealed revenues that were owed to the NFL as part of a revenue-sharing agreement, and held back millions in refundable deposits he was supposed to return to season-ticket holders. All this while seeking to squeeze every last penny from his team’s fans. He took the unusual step of charging the fans to attend training camp, once forced them to pay for parking by banning pedestrian access to the stadium, and used to sue season-ticket holders who could no longer afford to honor their contracts. The franchise has charged fans sky-high prices on everything from tickets to beer to watch their awful team in a decrepit stadium. Last year a railing collapsed, nearly causing Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts to be crushed under a sea of fans, and a pipe burst, causing fans to be drenched in something that may have been sewage. (The team claims it was rainwater, even though it was a perfectly sunny day; Washington perhaps literally pissed on its fans and then told them it was raining.) The shoddiness of the stadium extends to the turf field, which has been widely criticized, including by the team’s own players. The gross grass has been the site of multiple leg injuries, including a gruesome and career-altering ACL tear to Washington’s most exciting player of the Snyder era, quarterback Robert Griffin III.

But you don’t get called in front of Congress for being stingy or running a losing sports franchise. The path to Snyder’s impending congressional questioning began in July 2020, when The Washington Post published a report on Washington’s sexist workplace culture, with 15 women detailing accounts of various forms of harassment and bullying at the hands of male Washington employees. That led Snyder to commission an investigation from prominent D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson, an investigation that was later taken over by the NFL. Wilkinson, in a verbal report presented to league commissioner Roger Goodell last summer, confirmed the existence of a culture of sexual harassment throughout Snyder’s tenure as owner; the franchise was fined $10 million and Snyder was required to step back from the day-to-day operations of his team. However, the specific details of Wilkinson’s report were suspiciously kept under wraps, and Snyder was allowed to maintain ownership and control over certain business initiatives. (Notably: He was featured in the announcement that the team would be renamed the Commanders.)

Because the Wilkinson report failed to reveal the details of Snyder’s wrongdoing in 2021, the House oversight committee launched an investigation into the Commanders’ “toxic workplace and the National Football League’s response.” In June, the panel released its findings, which included evidence that Snyder had attempted to derail the NFL’s investigation through the creation of a concurrent shadow investigation. Also in June, the Post reported that Snyder had previously settled with an employee who said he sexually assaulted her in 2009.

Snyder is terrible at his job and has a distinct ability to make life worse for virtually everybody with whom he comes into contact. So when the news broke that Snyder is evading Congress on a yacht, you could imagine Washington’s long-suffering fans and anyone with a general sense of human decency crossing their fingers and hoping that maybe this would be the end for Washington’s commander-in-chief. Maybe a brave maritime Robin Hood would track Snyder down and force him to walk the plank of the Lady S, or at least return him to a land where Congress can serve him with that subpoena. Then, perhaps, Congress could strip him of his team.

But that’s not really how it works. Snyder may be the poster boy for general shittiness among team owners, but the mechanisms for stripping him of his ownership depend primarily on his peers. And while taking to the high seas to live indefinitely on a yacht may seem outlandish to most people, it’s life as usual for his fellow NFL team owners, many of whom are also big boat billionaires. In fact, Snyder’s 300-foot boat is actually on the small side compared to other NFL owners’ mega-yachts. Although many have speculated about whether Snyder will be stripped of his franchise, he likely doesn’t have to worry about a mutiny. After all, the potential mutineers have yachts of their own.

It’s fair to wonder why Congress is investigating Dan Snyder. It seems like it has plenty of … you know … Congress stuff to deal with at the moment. The House oversight committee is meant to be a watchdog for the federal government, ensuring that the executive branch is running smoothly and not overstepping its boundaries. But it also regularly investigates corporations and public institutions under the justification that misbehavior might have a “channeling effect” on the rest of society. Sports fans will remember how, in the course of investigating steroid use in MLB, the committee brought baseball’s top sluggers to D.C. The intent of the investigation into Snyder, his football team, and the NFL is not to find anybody guilty of crimes or to enact punishments, but to better inform congresspeople as they craft legislation about the issues at hand.

To that end, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D–New York), the committee’s chairperson, has introduced a pair of bills based on the Washington investigation that are designed to help employees in other workplaces fight back against harassment, including one that would ban the use of post-dispute nondisclosure agreements—as Snyder long used NDAs to silence current and former team employees. But that’s the extent of Congress’s reach. Congress is not a court. It can’t punish Snyder, no matter what it finds—it can merely draft laws discouraging others from behaving like him.

In fact, Congress wants to know who could remove Snyder from his team. Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) asked Goodell, who voluntarily appeared before the committee in June, whether he could remove Snyder as the Washington owner. His answer: no. It’s the other way around. The NFL (and other American pro sports leagues) are essentially co-owned by their member franchises. The league profits don’t go to shareholders; they are split among the 32 teams. The league’s rules are passed by the NFL’s executive committee, which is composed of the owners of each team. If the league office has the power to do something—fine players, hire officials, etc.—that power is given to it by the teams. The league’s owners voted to hire Goodell; as the NFL’s website notes, they could vote to fire him. Of course, they won’t, because he’s done a good job of generating income for the league, as well as shouldering blame for the NFL’s worst mistakes.

This brings us to Snyder’s peers, his fellow NFL owners, who can vote to expel one another. But to do so would mean doing something that is unprecedented in the modern history of American sports. Perhaps you think you can remember a time when this happened—but it hasn’t, at least not recently. There have been several instances when owners have come under pressure and sold their franchises shortly thereafter, but in seemingly every case the final result was a voluntary sale without the formality of a league vote mandating a sale. Former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson immediately—and voluntarily—put his team up for sale in 2017 after Sports Illustrated reported on his use of racist and sexist language in the workplace. Former Reds owner Marge Schott was suspended from day-to-day operations after her (repeated) defense of Adolf Hitler, but she wasn’t forced to sell. According to the Post, Schott was given a choice in 1999 of selling the team or facing indefinite suspension.

The closest thing to a recent official owner expulsion came with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. One of the most disgusting humans you could imagine, Sterling maintained ownership of the Clippers through decades of harassment and discrimination lawsuits, but was felled in 2014 by his inability to open his mouth without saying something preposterously offensive. First, he was caught on tape delivering a racist rant to his mistress; then, his attempted apology for the rant resulted in Sterling criticizing Magic Johnson for being HIV-positive. The NBA suspended Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million, and commissioner Adam Silver moved to bring about a vote to expel Sterling. Ultimately, Sterling’s wife, Shelly, voluntarily sold the team days before a league hearing on whether to expel Sterling. When the deal was reached, Sterling’s expulsion hearing was canceled. Perhaps we’re splitting hairs—it certainly seems likely that NBA owners would have voted to force Sterling out if the sale hadn’t made it unnecessary—but officially, the sale was voluntary. Shelly Sterling even retained “owner emeritus” status.

In the end, most owners on the verge of losing their teams choose to save themselves the embarrassment of an expulsion vote. But few people are as stubborn and inflexible as Snyder, who has spent years fighting any and every suggestion on how to improve his sinking franchise, and has dug in his heels on even the most meaningless disputes—like suing journalists who were critical of the team or taking a bankrupt grandmother who couldn’t pay her season-ticket deposit to court. (Seriously, he once sued a bankrupt grandmother. A court ordered her to pay more than $66,000 to the billionaire.) Snyder is so immune to accepting responsibility that he’s tried living at sea to avoid being asked questions by Congress. If anybody would fight off the inevitable, clawing and screeching like a cat trying to fight off bath time, it’s him. He hasn’t listened to any of the thousands of people who have asked him to sell the team over the past 23 years. I don’t think he’ll start now.

It’s easy to imagine Snyder refusing to sell unless forced to by the NFL. It’s equally easy to imagine his co-owners refusing to force him out. Forcing someone to sell their team might seem like a fake punishment—after all, they would still get the money from the sale, and the most recent NFL team sale price was over $4.5 billion. That’s enough to ensure that someone’s great-great-grandkids die ludicrously rich. But to these modern-day kings and queens, team ownership is about more than the money. Their positions in charge of these wildly popular sports franchises make them notable in a way that staggering wealth cannot. Their teams become family businesses, passed down from generation to generation. They put their kids and in-laws in front office positions, sometimes making decisions about the football team itself.

It’s not exactly like Snyder’s fellow owners are some progressive heroes. In 2020, the State Department investigated allegations that Jets owner Woody Johnson made racist and sexist remarks while serving as ambassador to the United Kingdom. In 2019, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was arrested as part of a prostitution sting. (Misdemeanor charges filed against Kraft were dropped in 2020.) In January, former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores brought a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL that spotlighted how the league’s issues with hiring Black coaches begin with its predominantly white owners, who have a tendency to hire white front office executives, who in turn hire white coaches. If the league’s owners voted on whether to kick out Snyder because of his misbehavior and workplace misconduct, how many would wonder whether they’ve done something that could get them kicked out of this exclusive club?

It’s entirely possible that Snyder’s fellow NFL owners will make history and vote him out. He’s an embarrassment to the league who—perhaps this is the most important factor—could be costing his fellow owners money, through mismanagement of a large-market franchise and allegedly hiding cash that he should be sharing with them. The NFL says it’s committed to uprooting sexism and discrimination, and Snyder is a drain on the league’s bottom line. Booting him should be a win-win.

But he will be judged by a jury of his peers. The people who will decide whether Snyder has to give up his team are also the only other people on earth who own NFL teams, and therefore are personally invested in avoiding the precedent that someone can be stripped of their team ownership and all the power that comes with it.

The NFL’s owners have an opportunity to do the right thing and make clear what they stand for as a league. But NFL owners also have an opportunity to hammer home that they are all but immune from the punishment they fear the most, and if they give Snyder a pass, they would further green-light their own misbehaviors and exempt themselves from future reckonings. Snyder can sleep easily on his yacht.