In NFL's Faulty Power Structure, Owners Atop an Invincible Perch

The source of rot within the Washington Football Team is still on top, showing the NFL has no meaningful system in place to check team ownership.
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Before the cozy, white collar punishment for Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder was released on Thursday—conveniently before the Fourth of July weekend—he did an interview with the New York Times that painted him as more aghast about a fire that was happening in his building than being one of the suspects questioned for arson.

By the ninth paragraph, it’s noted that Snyder was “incredibly remorseful and incredibly sorry” but also that he was “leaving much of the day-to-day running of the club to Bruce Allen, the former team president who was dismissed at the end of 2019 after a decade on the job.” His own personal statement, released afterward on Thursday, comes from the perspective of someone who had just read the appalling Washington Post articles about his own workplace culture for the first time. There is a major difference between calling yourself directly responsible and “ultimately responsible,” the latter of which Snyder decided to go with. More than a dozen instances of sexual harassment. Rampant verbal abuse. What’s that, you say? I had no idea! Well, I guess my name is on the building, so…sorry!

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Much has been made about the gargantuan, $10 million fine levied against Snyder, which amounts to just a small portion of his net worth (recently noted by Forbes to be in the neighborhood of $2.6 billion). The league rightfully did not punish Washington with a loss of draft picks, as it would only serve to hamper the new staff Snyder’s team is tasked with bringing aboard. The prominent figures in the Washington Post article—who were accused of bullying, making unwanted sexual advances and “routinely berating a female employee for trivial problems such as printer malfunctions”—had been let go anyway, as part of what seemed to be a subverted media blitz to preempt the release of the story itself.

But the fine stopped short of doing what the NFL is seemingly unable to do, which is rid itself of Snyder, or any troublesome owner, in the first place. For now, the day-to-day operations of the club will fall on the shoulders of his wife, Tanya, while Snyder will focus “on a new stadium plan and other matters,” according to a release sent by the NFL. There is no specificity as to how long Snyder will remain on standby.

So many of the NFL’s biggest problems arise from the ownership level, but Thursday’s punishment illustrates the league's inability to hold owners accountable beyond a large charitable donation that helps defray the optics of the serious findings, anyway. There will be no written report on the issue beyond a statement from the NFL, which concludes:

“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.”

By design, this will disappear as we all prepare ourselves to get distracted by a shiny new logo and stadium, ignoring the women whose careers were derailed at the hands of dimwitted, chauvinistic and irresponsible employees.

Allowing the owner to skate is not a malfunction of the system, but a critical part of its functionality. It’s amazing the juxtaposition; players are forced to be both the league’s moral backbone and sole source of entertainment but often lose their ability to make a living after one mistake. Owners simply get to continue on this path of least resistance. Outside of Jerry Richardson, whose own misdeeds detailed in Sports Illustrated forced him into a sale of the Carolina Panthers, no one pays much of a price beyond this temporary speed bump on the quiet afternoon the fines and soft suspensions are announced. Richardson, by the way, bought into the NFL at a little over $200 million and his parting gift was a large percentage of a sale that exceeded $2 billion.

Ask any coach or personnel man close enough to the top of the food chain, and most of them will likely agree that most of a franchise’s biggest problems stem from the person who flies a helicopter to practice once a month before departing on a lavish vacation. Most of the time, these little interferences are incidental in the grand scheme of things; they bust in and make horrible draft picks, they decide on a whim to gut the team or hire a terrible coach on the advice of some out-of-touch search firm. While a fan might disagree, none of this arises to the level of a punishable offense.

But then there are the instances like we saw over the years in Washington, which destroy lives, make people terrified to come to work in the morning and force them to exit or lament careers that were once their dream jobs. If Snyder truly was unaware of this all happening in his backyard, isn’t that a fireable offense as well? How might the NFL feel knowing that the people who purport to own the franchises don’t actually care enough to step foot in the building and do a quality control check every once in a while? How does this jibe with the NFL’s original mission, where people who loved football came together to grow the sport and spread its intrinsic values together? Have we really strayed that far from the mission statement that we’re willing to accept “I dunno, I wasn’t there all that much” as an excuse?

The current state of play has created this perch of invincibility from which the NFL can never truly audit itself.

Which is where we still find Snyder perched heading into this sleepy Fourth of July weekend. He is out $10 million, though it won’t take long for him to make that back. He is sidelined from day-to-day operations but still deciding what the team will be called and where they will play. He still gets a chance to come to work Monday, if he so chooses, relatively unscathed. We cannot say the same for those who were tormented inside his offices. 

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