For more than a year, Commanders owner Daniel Snyder has been almost entirely out of sight in the NFL. He has not attended meetings with his fellow owners, popping up only a few weeks ago at midfield before Washington’s game in Dallas, with one of his very few allies, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Snyder is in a kind of strange limbo that was not called a suspension but which made him, effectively, persona non grata in the NFL.
Even in his absence, though, Snyder has exerted a sort of power over the league, which was — depending on who you were talking to — disgusted by him, suspicious of him, a little afraid of him, too. That all played out quietly, though, mostly behind closed doors, as most crises involving this particular set of wealthy, but generally private, individuals usually do. The allegations that have been levied against Snyder range from sexual misconduct to lording over a franchise rife with sexual harassment to financial improprieties that may have kept money from the other owners, who are his business partners. These allegations have led to at least four separate ongoing investigations, including one begun in February by the NFL, led by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, that continues to this day. But even those who in recent months had come to the conclusion that the NFL should not coexist any longer with Snyder would not put their names behind their sentiments.
Until Tuesday, at the NFL’s Fall League Meeting in New York, when Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay dropped the civility and caution and said out loud what others in the league, including other owners, have been whispering for months.
“I believe that there’s merit to remove him as owner of the [Commanders],” Irsay said. “I think it’s something that we have to review, we have to look at all the evidence and we have to be thorough going forward, but I think it’s something that has to be given serious consideration.”
Depending on your point of view, Irsay was either the first owner to have the nerve to go after Snyder publicly, or the one with the least self-control. Either way, Irsay’s comments represented an extraordinary — and in this case, refreshing — public rebuke of one owner by another.
NFL owners do not always agree with one another — there are factions, as there are in any other business — but they are mostly cautious business people who lean on precedent and almost never offer even mild personal criticism of one another in front of reporters. Irsay, though, essentially called for another owner’s head while holding court in front of dozens of reporters and cameras for nearly 15 minutes, repeatedly revisiting the topic.
It was stunning, not least because his comments apparently caught other owners, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, off guard. When Goodell was asked if he was upset or surprised by Irsay’s comments, he, interestingly, said, “No.” But he advised the other owners not to follow suit. A parade of owners raced for the exits of the meeting hotel, avoiding the reporters who gave chase.
Still, Irsay effectively set the stage for a fight, probably a lengthy and litigious one, which most owners want badly to avoid. They might find it necessary, though, if they are finally to rid themselves of an owner who has driven one of their most revered franchises into the ground, while also bringing relentless embarrassment and shame to the league.
After all, now that Irsay has broken the silence, it is hard to imagine how the other owners can back down — assuming the investigation proves even just some of the accusations are true — without appearing to be afraid of Snyder.
As one person in the league familiar with ownership thinking said earlier this week, before Irsay made his comments, some owners feel Snyder brings no value to the NFL, and instead has brought everybody down with him.
Irsay was the first to go on the record to that effect. Snyder was not present at the league meeting — his wife, Tanya, has represented the team at league events since July of 2021, when Snyder was fined $10 million by the NFL and handed over day-to-day operations to Tanya following an investigation of the team’s culture conducted by attorney Beth Wilkinson on the league’s behalf — and his future status was not on the meeting’s official agenda.
But almost immediately after Irsay was finished speaking, it became clear that banishing Snyder permanently won’t be easy.
“It is highly inappropriate, but not surprising, that Mr. Irsay opted to make statements publicly based on falsehoods in the media,” a Commanders spokesman said in a statement in response to Irsay’s comments. “It is unfortunate that Mr. Irsay decided to go public with his statement today, while an investigation is in process, and the team has had no opportunity to formally respond to allegations. The Commanders have made remarkable progress over the past two years. We are confident that, when he has an opportunity to see the actual evidence in this case, Mr. Irsay will conclude that there is no reason for the Snyder’s [sic] to consider selling the franchise. And they won’t.”
Those last three words are most important, making plain what Snyder’s fellow owners have long anticipated — that he will not go easily. There are those in and around the league who hope he could be persuaded to sell his team, to reap a multibillion dollar windfall and spare his family the embarrassment of a brawl with other owners and the potential of a humiliating vote to oust him.
The NFL has never taken that step to remove an owner. The Carolina Panthers’ former owner Jerry Richardson decided to sell the team soon after revelations of his own inappropriate behavior came to light, in December of 2017. It is worth noting that in a letter sent to owners Tuesday afternoon, just minutes after his spokesman delivered the blistering response, Snyder struck a more conciliatory tone, refuting a recent ESPN report that he had asked, via his law firms, for private investigators to look into other owners and Goodell.
“While we are all fierce competitors on the field, we are a part of this organization because we love football, our teams and our fans,” Snyder’s letter said. “Having the privilege to own a franchise in America’s sport is something I know none of us take for granted.”
That chummy tone probably elicited more than a few eye rolls from his fellow owners, considering that, other than Jones, it is difficult to identify many other owners who are allies.
While Irsay is not considered one of the most influential owners in the league, he is a noteworthy messenger. Irsay has dealt, often publicly, with his own issues, largely stemming from addiction. In 2014, he was suspended for six games and fined $500,000 after an arrest for driving while under the influence of painkillers. But with his own skeletons already out in the open, Irsay summoned some bravado when asked if he was concerned that Snyder might be collecting “dirt” on other owners as the ESPN report alleged.
“You can investigate me until the cows come home,” Irsay said. “That’s not going to back me off. Private investigators or any of that stuff — it’s irrelevant to me. I don’t know about any of that stuff. I just focus on the issue of what’s happening in Washington and to me, it’s gravely concerning.”
Irsay was emotional as he spoke, talking about his daughters and granddaughters who will eventually take over the Colts and saying that the allegations against Snyder were casting a negative light on the entire league.
“That’s not what we stand for in the National Football League,” Irsay said. “Owners have been painted incorrectly a lot of times by various people under various situations. That’s not what we’re about. We do care a great deal for each other. There’s a lot of friendships in this league and closeness. I don’t think some of the things I’ve heard, it doesn’t represent us at all. I want the American public and the world to know what we’re about as owners.”
With the league awaiting the outcome of White’s investigation, which encompasses the allegation of Snyder’s sexual misconduct and the allegations of financial impropriety, and which could provide the foundation for a coordinated move against Snyder, Goodell warned the owners Tuesday that “speculation without facts is not a very positive thing to do.”
Perhaps not, but Irsay did the dirty work for the other owners who share his sentiments. In being the first to stake a position against Snyder, he will take whatever external and internal blowback there is, and that would shield successive owners who may eventually speak out.
And most importantly, Irsay forced the NFL into the fray. Snyder avoided a public reckoning last summer following Wilkinson’s initial investigation. He was not formally suspended, and the report from that investigation was never released publicly, with Goodell insisting the decision not to furnish public information was meant to protect women who had made accusations against the team. The summary of findings that was released was damning enough, though.
“For many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional,” it said. “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.”
Irsay spoke Tuesday about protecting “the standard that the shield stands for.” Owners fell short of that standard by not acting more urgently following Wilkinson’s initial review. Why would they want to continue to be in business with someone associated with those findings?
That is a question the league will likely have to publicly wrestle with at some point, but it’s not the most pressing one today. This one is more straightforward: What will it take for the rest to follow through on Irsay’s mandate? Snyder’s chances of survival as an owner seem more tenuous than ever. If it ever came to a vote, 24 owners would have to choose to remove Snyder — Irsay said he thought potentially there would be that many. Short of a vote, though, it will take a lot of persuasion and some very firm guidance toward the door to rid the NFL of Snyder.