I have accumulated an increasingly soul-numbing feeling of waste and moral injury from caring about the football team Dan Snyder has blackened over the past quarter-century. Under Snyder, Washington’s once-proud NFL franchise has won a piddling two playoff games over the course of 24 years, which is the same number of times it changed its nickname during that period. Now, with the most hated owner in the NFL selling his Potomac estate and cleaning out of his office at team headquarters in Ashburn in anticipation of an over $6 billion sale, Snyder is primed to be the least-missed Washington fixture since James Comey.
The case against Snyder has been made and remade so many times that it’s practically a banality. Your Assads and Khameneis have real admirers in Washington; Snyder is so cretinous that it comes across as trollish even to try to explain him or to contend that this dough-faced imp could ever have stood for something other than maximum venality and implacable greed. To defend him seems beyond the very bounds of believability, much less decency. This is why it is important for me to assure you the following argument for Snyder is entirely sincere.
As a Redskins fan, I chose to spend many of the precious idle moments of my expiring youth watching and caring about this team, which means that reckoning with Snyder is really another way of reckoning with my own choices and values. I know I’m not entirely bad. How could Snyder be? In fact, it’s a civic necessity to argue Snyder’s side. In the interest of inoculating ourselves against error, we citizens of a democratic society should never be so arrogant as to believe that the consensus view is automatically the correct one.
A Maryland-born college dropout-turned-advertising entrepreneur and fan-turned-history’s youngest buyer of an NFL team, Snyder is a misunderstood striver who destroyed a proud NFL franchise in quest of something nobler than his own enrichment. Snyder’s sabotaging inner need for control reflected something other than mere ego, and his serial distortions in judgment don’t point to megalomania but to a force even darker and more destructive: love.
Snyder lived a twisted version of every supporter’s dream, ascending the owner’s box only to discover he loved a thing he couldn’t fix, a thing that was actually worsened through his care. Steve Spurrier phoning in his resignation as head coach from a golf course, Robert Griffin III’s exploding knee, and the brisk deterioration of FedEx Field into a barely functional modern ruin became earthly expressions of the cosmic verdict that Snyder must be punished for his devotion. In 2012, ESPN reported that Snyder would sulk in the owner’s box after tough losses, which there were a lot of, slamming pizzas and cheeseburgers in a self-lacerating binge until 4 a.m. This is the true Snyder, a grotesque subsumption of the team into a single schlubby and desperate fan. If only he’d been less desperate.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of terrible sports owners: the ones who destroy teams very slowly through neglect and the ones who destroy them much more rapidly because they care too much. For the first 20 years of his ownership of the Redskins, Snyder belonged firmly to the latter category. In the early years, he spent extravagantly on washed-up free agents, Deion Sanders being the shiniest jewel in Snyder’s cabinet of cubic zirconia. He ran coaches and quarterbacks out of town with the abandon of someone certain they were one ingenious decision away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Snyder’s fragile ego never permitted him to hire a general manager or keep any talented personnel executive around for very long. Actual football knowledge was an unendurable threat to Snyder’s sense of self, as his campaign to smear the fired possible franchise savior Scot McCloughan as a relapsed alcoholic in 2016 rather cruelly demonstrated.
In his final half-decade as owner, love curdled into nihilism, and Snyder reverted to a much more ordinary terribleness. Most of Snyder’s alleged misdeeds from this period are overstated or could even count in his favor. That he allegedly stiffed his fellow owners on shared league revenue is actually kind of cool because, while stealing and lying are both bad, I cannot in good conscience oppose anything that hurts the Eagles, Cowboys, or Giants. Rejecting an invitation from a panel of congressional hyenas looking into that aforementioned alleged theft, as well as into the franchise’s supposed culture of sexual harassment, only improved Snyder’s growing outlaw cred — with me, at least. His refusal to sell the team to Jeff Bezos, eschewing easy billions and inviting an increasingly plausible scenario in which the NFL might strip Snyder of ownership, is a supreme act of principle in this stupid day and age.
But principle hasn’t figured into much of anything else for Snyder lately. In 2020, Snyder capitulated to threats from FedEx and a host of other corporate partners and changed the team’s name from “Redskins,” breaking a long-standing promise and siding with corporate money against some large percentage of his team’s dwindling fan base. Snyder has twice disrespected the memory of franchise icon Sean Taylor in recent years, retiring his number in an awkward ceremony announced just days before and unveiling a ghastly statue of the murdered safety that immediately became an internet meme. A survey of NFL players recently found that Washington has by far the worst practice and training facilities and overall player services in the league. No one was surprised by this.
As for the dollars and cents: Snyder is reportedly one of the only owners in the league who pays himself a salary — $10 million annually, as opposed to the traditional $0 — and who charges the team for the use of his private aircraft. The Commanders now resemble one of those late-stage autocratic regimes that have finally jettisoned any sense of larger purpose and exist only to extend the ruling clique’s hold on wealth and power.
Snyder has contributed generously to fighting cancer, which is admirable enough. But, in Washington, the owner is better known for chopping down the federally protected trees blocking his mansion’s view of the Potomac than he is for building much of anything. People forgave Abe Pollin for presiding over decades of mediocre hockey and basketball because he transformed downtown Washington and was an ever-present benefactor to seemingly every major institution in town. Snyder leaves no comparable legacy. In time, it will be as if he was never even here.
Can’t the same be said for almost all of us, though? How many of you even know who Abe Pollin is? Maybe Snyder’s disgusting twilight years as owner reveal the evil glimmer of self-knowledge.
Perhaps he understood that a sports owner is measured only through whether they can bring a championship, that cathartic ultimate victory that absolves every past and future sin. Snyder descended into nihilism only when he accepted the fact that he couldn’t make his dreams real or our dreams real. The dreams are stupid, he eventually decided, perhaps while signing a $10 million check to himself.
But it’s clear to me he didn’t always believe that. He’s a man with a broken soul, which is different from being a soulless man and might even be worse. For most of his life, Snyder was the kind of person capable of being tormented by his failures. And he is only 58 years old, weeks or even days away from a projected $6 billion windfall. He will likely spend his remaining decades continuing to discover how little it all really buys in the end.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based reporter at large for Tablet.