Book Excerpt: Daniel Snyder and the Unreal Power of NFL Owners

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterOctober 13, 2015

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, right, and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, left, take a break while filming a Papa John's commercial at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tx., Wednesday, September 1, 2010. Jones and Snyder, while rivals in the NFL’s NFC East, are both partners with Papa John’s, the world’s third-largest pizza chain.  The video will air during NBC’s “Football Night in America” on September 12 prior to the Cowboys and Redskins opening their NFL regular season in Washington.  Papa John’s, known for “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza,” is the Official Pizza Sponsor of the NFL and 12 NFL teams, including the Cowboys and Redskins.  (Brandon Wade/AP for Papa John's)
Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Editor's note: The following is an edited excerpt from Two Minute Warning: How Concussions, Crime and Controversy Could Kill the NFL (and What the League Can Do to Survive), a new book by Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman.

It is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit

Courtesy of Triumph Books

As NFL franchise values have risen dramatically, a sense of invulnerability has increased exponentially, to the point where some owners (not all; there are humble ones such the Mara and Rooney families) have come to believe they are infallible. No owner epitomizes this arrogance like Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington team. His arrogance has even extended to his treatment of fellow owners.

There is a scene that illustrates why Snyder is feared, liked, despised, admired and admonished. Why he is seen as a bully, a genius, a constant threat to litigate, an unabashed defender of a slur, a moneymaker and maybe the most important and most hated owner in football. That scene begins with a threat.

It was the 2012 owners' meetings, not long after Washington and Dallas were penalized by the NFL for $36 million and $10 million in salary-cap room, respectively. The NFL—specifically the league's management council, which is the business arm of the NFL—accused both clubs of frontloading contracts during the 2010 season, when there was no salary cap. Teams had been warned not to do this because it could destroy the central lifeblood of the NFL, competitive balance.

The owners' meetings, with all 32 owners along with high-ranking league and team executives present, was the first opportunity for Dallas and Washington to address the top of the NFL's hierarchy at once.

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Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, spoke first. He expressed his annoyance and anger over the cap penalties, but he was succinct, taking only a handful of minutes and making it clear there would be no lawsuit against his fellow owners.

Then Bruce Allen, Washington's general manager and Snyder's most trusted lieutenant, addressed the room. According to a longtime NFL team executive who was present, it wasn't long into his speech before Allen threatened to sue every owner in the NFL. He would go on to get more fiery, personal and ugly from there, as he began pacing furiously around the hotel ballroom. There were more threats of a lawsuit. Allen grew angrier. He began screaming.

Cliff Owen/Associated Press

He wasn't done. He then pointed at each member of the management council, saying Washington and Dallas should have never been penalized because the council had approved the very contracts that would cause the teams to be punished. He saved some of his harshest remarks for John Mara, co-owner of the Giants and one of the most respected men in all of sports, a key cog who has been with the team for decades. Mara was furious.

Everyone in the room was stunned. Owners and executives, sitting just several feet from one another, began texting each other, incredulous at what they were witnessing. In some of the texts, Allen was facetiously called Clarence Darrow, the legendary litigator known for his bombastic courtroom speeches.

Owners and executives say they had never seen anything like it. Nobody had ever gotten so personal or made such threats.

They also say Allen was acting as proxy for Snyder, which would seem evident given the owner's behavior. The chairs at the owners' meetings are usually oversized. They can swallow up a smaller person like Snyder, who is approximately 5'6". As Allen spoke, a high-ranking team executive who was there remembered, Snyder gleefully swiveled back and forth in a chair that practically enveloped him, at times smiling widely.

When an owner or league official threatens to sue, per league rules, he is forbidden from taking part in certain aspects of the meetings. So when Allen's speech ended, because it included a threat to litigate, both Allen and Snyder were told to leave the room. They did.

So ended one of the most notorious (and mostly unknown until now) chapters in NFL history.

The episode was instructive in that it opened a window into Snyder, who has emerged as one of the most important—and notorious—owners in the NFL. His decision to fiercely defend his team's nickname, an act that has inspired Congressional condemnation as well as vocal backing from fans of the team, has spotlighted him as a central figure in all of sports. His stance, in many ways, has opened another front in America's culture wars.

"I will never believe that Dan Snyder does not want to win," former Washington Post columnist Mike Wise, who has written about Snyder extensively, once told me. "Now, you could argue that winning to him isn't winning in a classic sense. Winning doesn't just mean winning a Super Bowl to him, I believe. It means winning the offseason, making prospective luxury-box purchasers believe you have made the right moves to contend again. It means winning the fanbase that thinks he's the worst owner ever over. If that means putting failure at the coach's feet or on someone else's, fine. But don't blame Dan. He's trying so hard.

"Finally, winning for Dan Snyder means being right. Damned if he's going to let some politically correct mad libs take his name away from him. That's how he sees it. He has no idea of [how] the hundreds of thousands that want the team name gone really feel. He thinks it's a media conspiracy, and by getting a couple of hundred letters from Native Americans who like the name he can solve it. The name issue is a major window into who he is as an owner."

The NFL owners are an interesting group. There are a handful of high-profile owners, but most stay in the background. Ownership meetings are among the most secretive aspects of professional football. Some owners (and management personnel, including general managers) are genuinely decent people who want the best for their players. Some other owners see their teams simply as ATM machines, and the players as interchangeable parts. They don't see the players as true partners. If they did, they would care more about them, and definitely not say what the owner of the Texans said to GQ magazine in early 2015.

In the story, Texans owner Bob McNair was quoted as being dismissive of the NFL's concussion crisis, saying, unbelievably, that most head trauma of NFL players didn't happen in professional football.

Wrote Gabriel Sherman:

By the summer of 2013, [Roger] Goodell was determined to put Bountygate and the broader concussion issue behind him. He held a series of meetings with team owners in New York and persuaded them to settle the class-action lawsuit brought by more than 5,000 players who were seeking financial payouts for concussion-related conditions such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and depression. Goodell argued that while the league could fight in court and likely prevail, the litigation would be a festering wound on the league's image.

"It was about protecting the brand," recalled Bob McNair, who attended the sessions. "Do we want the brand attacked on this for the next 10 years? Or do we want to go ahead and take the high road? In effect, we don't think most of these concussions referenced even occurred in the NFL, but we're not going to complain about it."

It wasn't about protecting the players; it was about protecting the brand. McNair might as well have called the players cattle.

Indianapolis Colts vice chair and co-owner Carlie Irsay-Gordon, who is 34 years old, didn't do much to dispel the stereotype of owner as out-of-touch millionaire. Talking to Cindi Leive for Glamour magazine in January 2015 about her confidence in the Colts, this was how she responded:

You don't ever want to become one of those doubters. ... These [late-season] games can be really, really rough because everyone's tired. You'll see the strains. A lot of it is just fatigue-related...[and] they don't take care [of themselves]. A lot of these guys are younger and they're less educated'd be amazed at what some of them eat. ... Some of them, all they eat is McDonald's.

And they're less educated.

On concussions:

At the end of the day I think [these athletes] are adults and they're getting paid large sums of money. ... A lot of these guys that are claiming they're having these concussion issues, they have alcohol or drug problems that are just going to compound it. ... There's no secret there are risks associated with this game.

One of the more interesting aspects of covering ownership is the perception of owners by fans and even many in the media that the owners are pseudo-gods—men of industry, world conquerors—when in fact they are ordinary, flawed human beings like the rest of us. Their blemishes are hidden by money and power. Perhaps most interestingly, in some cases, the reins of a franchise are simply handed to a son after a father passes. Some of them, like John Mara, son of the late Wellington Mara, who ran the Giants for decades, work hard (and intelligently) to make the franchise better. They have the drive and smarts to do it.

They also do not flaunt their privilege. Late in 2014, a sixth-grader named Cade Pope, who is from Yukon, Oklahoma, wrote all 32 NFL owners, telling them he was looking to become a fan of a team and asking each why he should support them. Only one owner wrote back: Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers. Richardson sent Pope a replica team helmet signed by star linebacker Luke Kuechly and a handwritten note. "Cade, we would be honored if our Carolina Panthers became your team. We would make you proud by the classy way we would represent you," Richardson wrote.

Yet some of the league's owners reflect the current state of the league and how it acts as if it can do no wrong. Or whatever it wants. Snyder exemplifies that attitude.

There are many ways to begin to understand Snyder and his almost pathological stubbornness in refusing to change his NFL team's nickname, even though many in the American Indian community and others find it offensive. There are many ways, yes, but the most important is understanding two vital facts about him: Snyder is a Marylander, and he's a lifelong fan of the team. Those two facts drive him, his philosophy and his inability to see the other side of the nickname issue.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Sure, there are other reasons why Snyder remains immovable on the nickname. But I believe it is his fandom that drives him the most. Snyder's stance on the nickname has been consistent. "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps," Snyder told USA Today's Erik Brady in May 2013.

The issue of what is offensive to American Indians has become a contentious one, even opening another front in the culture war. It has been argued in sports bars and living rooms, from the nation's capital to Indian reservations. People like Snyder who grew up fans of the team protect the nickname because it has become a part of their identity. It's part of who they are, how they see themselves. And though deep in their core they know the nickname is wrong and offensive, some fight to protect it because they see it is a part of history, their history.

I know all this because I lived it myself. I was born in Washington, D.C., but raised in one of the great social experiments of the 20th century, a planned community called Columbia, in Maryland. The city's goal was to eliminate racial, religious and financial segregation. At the time of Columbia's founding in the mid-1960s, nearby Virginia had just banned interracial marriage. D.C. was highly segregated, as was most of the state of Maryland. As time went on, in the years after my family moved there, I grew up with people of every conceivable race—including American Indians—had friends of various ethnicities and dated girls from different racial backgrounds. I was arrogant in my belief there wasn't a single bigoted bone in my body—and completely unaware I loved a team that racially insulted an entire people.

Worse, the only time I thought of the nickname as a slur while growing up was during Catholic high school. A Colts fan and I got into a fight when he called my team the "N----rskins." We scrapped and both got detention or "JUG" (Justice Under God). I was offended at the use of the N-word but not at "Skins." Somehow, my love of the team allowed me to be angry over one slur but fail to recognize the other.

Washington fandom has long been extremely underrated. Everyone around me—family and friends, neighbors, the postman, the babysitter, everyone—cherished the team. When it played, time stopped. A football team placated our insecurity.

Snyder grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, about 25 minutes from Columbia and minutes from the Washington, D.C., border. He grew up adoring the team, particularly during the Joe Gibbs era. Snyder and I have talked about this—the strangeness of how a football team, a game, can have so much significance in your life. Snyder grew up a Marylander...and I believe he uses the nickname issue as a rallying cry to solidify his football base. To Snyder, the critics are not attacking a name. Rather, they are attacking all of us, Maryland and D.C. folks who love this team.

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 14: A Washington Redskins fan holds up a sign to keep the Redskins name before they play the Jacksonville Jaguars at FedExField on September 14, 2014 in Landover, Maryland. The Washington Redskins won, 41-10. (Photo by Patrick Smi
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The irony is that a significant number of fans are African-American. If there is any group that should be sensitive to a slur, it is us. Yet it seems many black fans support the name, and this remains the most tragic part of the Washington team nickname story.

In my family, I was raised to be aware of my roots and history. I'm related to an Irish freedom fighter from Maryland and a black activist from D.C. I was always socially aware of race, studied my history extensively, and yet I was totally ambivalent regarding my favorite football team's questionable nickname. I was part of a racially conscious family in a racially tolerant community with racially diverse friends and family, yet we never once discussed that Redskin is a Webster-defined racial slur. None of my black friends and I did either. Ever. That is the power of growing up a Washington football team fan in Maryland.

Why is it so powerful? Because thinking seriously about the nickname ruined our football utopia. Yes, it's a racist, flawed nickname, but it's our racist, flawed nickname.

I liked Snyder a great deal upon first getting to know him after he purchased the team in 1999, because he was a Maryland guy. He was one of us. We got along well when we met and talked. I interviewed him several times in his office at the team's complex and spoke more than a few times on the phone. He was always smart and helpful. I likely interviewed Snyder dozens of times during the first few years of his tenure as owner. Snyder was to me, initially, brilliant, a new-wave owner in the mold of Jerry Jones, who would spend money on the team. My team. Almost everyone I knew in my old neighborhood who was a fan felt the same way.

Then, I started to see things. It began with little things. When at the complex, I saw how he occasionally mistreated people around him—secretaries, assistant coaches—and began to hear stories from those coaches about how Snyder would scream at them over a play call. At first, the stories were just a trickle. They'd eventually become a flood.

Snyder's desire to keep the nickname is strong, but the opposition is increasing drastically. In 2015, the powerful Fritz Pollard Alliance, one of the key groups that helped to force the NFL better its hiring practices when it came to African-Americans, came out publicly against the nickname. That move is one of the most monumental in the nickname fight. "As the NFL continues to move in the direction of respect and dignity, one of its teams carrying this name cuts glaringly against the grain," read a letter cosigned by the group's chairman, John Wooten, who played for Washington in the 1960s. "It hurts the League and it hurts us all."

The likely outcome, however, is that Snyder keeps the name as long as he can. The racist nickname will have to be pried—to borrow a phrase—from his cold, dead hands. He likely will refuse to change, no matter what evidence contradicts his worldview, because that's what arrogant men do.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.