Washington Commanders’ owner Dan Snyder’s sale of the team was greeted enthusiastically by Washingtonians and by sports journalists and commentators. In cheering Snyder’s departure, most of the journalists cited what ESPN called “a culture in Washington that was toxic and predatory” — in plain language, the way that Snyder treated his female employees. Many of those who followed the Commanders, alias Redskins, had been fed up with Snyder for years before the revelations in The Washington Post that led to his being forced to sell. For me, as a journalist, the last straw was what happened in 2010.
Snyder had already revealed himself to be the most incompetent of owners. In 1999, when he bought the team, he took over all the football decisions. Halfway through the season, he fired the head coach, Norv Turner, who had a winning record, and replaced him with an assistant. The team ended up out of the playoffs. Snyder’s main beef was that Turner refused to bench the team’s quarterback in favor of Snyder’s signee Jeff George, who had a strong arm, but tended, to say the least, to throw interceptions. The new coach replaced Johnson with George, who proceeded to lose games. The next season, Snyder hired a new coach who benched George after he contributed to losses in the first two games. Meanwhile, Johnson departed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he led them to a Super Bowl. That was very typical of Snyder’s football management. The subsequent decade would be filled with similar missteps.
In November 2010, Washington’s alternative newsweekly, The City Paper, ran a story by Dave McKenna entitled “The Cranky Redskin Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder” that detailed the owner’s “many failings,” from his incompetence running the team to his price gouging and questionable business deals. The article featured a photograph of Snyder with a devil’s goatee and horns penciled in. Three months later, Snyder filed a $2 million defamation suit against The City Paper that threatened to shut the paper down. The suit cited Snyder’s philanthropy (for instance, donations to the Red Cross), but the most widely-noted charge was that the paper’s criticism of him was anti-Semitic:
In its cover art, the Washington City Paper depicted the Jewish Mr. Snyder in a blatantly anti-Semitic way, complete with horns, bushy eyebrows, and dollar signs. This is precisely the type of imagery used historically, including in Nazi Germany, to dehumanize and vilify the Jewish people and associate them with a litany of libels over the last 2000 years.
Readers can look for the dollar signs. I can’t find them. And I don’t think any readers at the time except for Snyder’s lawyers (including Lanny Davis, whose other specialty then was African dictators) interpreted the picture of Snyder as conjuring up Nazi imagery. It was the most tawdry of ploys. Snyder’s was a nuisance suit meant to silence his critics.
But like many of Snyder’s ventures, it had exactly the opposite effect. Washingtonians, who were already fed up with Snyder, rose up in defense of the newsweekly, which was just recovering from a bankruptcy. Recalled Michael Schaffer, who was the editor, “We looked, accurately, like free-speech David against dictatorial Goliath. It was wild. People kicked in money for our legal defense. My phone started ringing off the hook.” Eight months after filing the suit, Snyder dropped it.
The suit was a clear indication of the kind of person and owner he was. Afterwards, of course, the team under Snyder only went further downhill, and his behavior toward women employees, once it came to light, led to his fellow owners finally pressuring him to sell.