A thin line between love and hate
An overbearing owner, a relentless writer and a $2 million lawsuit
- Peter Lockley for ESPN The MagazineDan Snyder may the NFL's most despised owner now that Al Davis is gone.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 15 DC Issue. Subscribe today!
CONSIDER TWO REDSKINS fans. They are locals -- one from Rockville, Md., the other from Falls Church, Va. -- not only of the same generation but of the same generation of Redskins fans, introduced to the team in the losing 1960s, faithful throughout the uneven '70s and rewarded with Super Bowls in the '80s. For them, the Redskins are not just a way of life but a way through life -- a way to learn about love, holding the old man's hand at RFK or downing bowls of Mom's homemade Redskins chili; about death, when Vince Lombardi passed away; about geographical hatred, when George Allen waged war on the city of Dallas; about pain, when Joe Theismann fractured his leg; and about community, from the unified joy of three championships.
At first, neither aspired to be anything other than a fan. But by 1999, through opportunity and luck, both came to be custodians of a sort for the team they adored, one as the owner, the other as a writer. Both were outsiders, and both approached their jobs as unabashed fans, different from most in their
professions. Through the responsibility of ownership and the coverage of ownership, they flaunted that love -- so much that it seemed inevitable not only that their paths would intersect but also that their connection to the Redskins would be altered. All because, as fans, they went too far.[+] EnlargeLarry French/Getty ImagesSnyder confers with head coach Jim Zorn before a game in 2008.
DAN SNYDER IS speaking for the team he owns, something he rarely does anymore. Sans his usual burgundy tie, he stands on a podium at Redskins Park wearing a gray suit with a blue-and-white-striped shirt. Today is the retirement ceremony for Clinton Portis, a largely symbolic affair considering that the running back hasn't played since the Redskins released him after the 2010 season. Snyder hates speaking in public and hates speaking for his team. But because Portis is a Snyder guy -- and because Snyder takes care of his guys -- he is officially retiring as a Redskin. That's why Snyder, the NFL's most despised owner now that Al Davis is gone, is here.
A tad short for the podium, Snyder bends the microphone to his lips. He has always seemed young and small -- too young and too small to own a team -- but a few months before his 48th birthday, he looks rather distinguished: deeply tanned, flecks of gray dusting his charcoal hair and thinner than a few years ago, when he carried the blooming gut of a man who enjoyed regular four-hour dinners. Peering over wire glasses, Snyder begins with a story from 2004 about Joe Gibbs wanting a franchise running back and his good fortune that Denver happened to be shopping Portis. Snyder refers to Portis as Hall of Fame worthy and reminisces about the "great victories," "tragedy" and "personal times" they shared.
It's classic Snyder, spinning a trade the Broncos won by acquiring still-active shutdown corner Champ Bailey and a second-round pick, enshrining one of his guys into Canton even though nobody, including Portis, believes he'll get there and memorializing the peak of Snyder-era dysfunction. That would be 2008 and 2009, the Jim Zorn years, when -- after relative calm during Gibbs' second term -- Snyder reverted into the impatient, impulsive and
intemperate meddler that had defined the beginning of his ownership, when he signed aging stars like Deion Sanders to insane contracts and cycled through four coaches in his first four seasons.
ESPN: The Mag
Chad Millman talks with Nationals GM Mike Rizzo about his decision to sit Stephen Strasburg and Seth Wickersham about his story on Dan Snyder in the latest DC issue.
Under Zorn it was worse. Snyder undermined the coach by allowing players to complain directly to him. He irritated the rest of the league by signing free agents like Albert Haynesworth to cap-wrecking contracts that agents would use as templates. And he seemingly put profits above all, including the fan base of which he was once a member, when his team sued a 72-year-old season-ticket holder who couldn't afford the payments on her suite-level seats.
But the hatred of Snyder has always extended beyond football transactions. It's the brashness with which he has carried himself, a cocky certitude that he can always go big as a means of problem-solving, as if money and his will are the answers to questions that football men spend their lives in vain trying to answer -- no matter how often both prove to fail, no matter how many losing seasons accumulate and no matter how many fans are alienated in the process.
The Redskins are less dysfunctional now. Snyder is still impatient, still impulsive, still intemperate, but he has given coach Mike Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen the gifts of rope, space and silence the past two seasons, despite the team's 11-21 record. The owner speaks mostly on occasions such as this, as the first fan. So Snyder does what a fan would do: He showers love, unveiling a portrait of Portis gashing through the New York Giants, painted by LeRoy Neiman before he died. Minutes later, Portis steps to the podium and begins to cry.
DAVE McKENNA IS speaking for the fans of the team he loves. He is a writer, and he writes from a fan's perspective. He is a young-looking 51-year-old, with dirty blond hair, a farmer's forearms, blue eyes that mean business and
the rested sheen of recent relief from weekly deadlines. Though he has been known to pull all-nighters polishing his stories, he fronts a slacker veneer, making self-effacing jokes about his life being "directionless." After graduating from high school in Falls Church, he road-tripped through the South before ending up near Lubbock and, what the hell, applying to Texas Tech. In 1984, with a journalism degree, he returned home to DC and started work as a music writer at the Washington City Paper, the District's scrappy alt-weekly.
In the '90s, McKenna began to write a sports column called "Skins Heads" -- later renamed "Cheap Seats" -- regularly covering his beloved Redskins. In 1999, when Snyder arrived on the scene, McKenna, like many fans, considered the new owner a hero. After all, the then-34-year-old unknown local mogul was as diehard as any of them. "Dan was the good guy," McKenna says. "He was billed to us as a fan." When McKenna happened upon Snyder
during his first year as owner -- in the guts of the Redskins' stadium after the home team beat the Panthers in October 1999 -- he responded as a fan would: "Congratulations!"
"Thanks!" Snyder replied. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson walked by at that moment. Snyder extended his hand, and Richardson, an old-guard guy apparently offended by new-school Snyder's brashness, "totally stoned Snyder," breezing right by, McKenna says. "He was very rude, and Snyder was just doing the right thing," he says. "So I had a very positive view of Snyder."
It didn't last long. He grew disenfranchised when Snyder's annual offseason signing binges never translated into titles. Snyder would always go big in the spring, bigger than other owners, always overpay -- in 2000, he spent $79 million combined for Sanders and Bruce Smith, both of whom were past their prime -- and it would always end badly.
To limit the public fallout, not to mention increase revenue, Snyder became obsessed with controlling the media message. He has always understood that fans, in their heart, were like him: They want to be closer to the team. And Snyder has always understood that he could control -- even profit from -- access. So he sold that access, partnering with local TV affiliates, like many owners do. But Snyder being Snyder, he didn't stop there. He went big, punishing rivals. McKenna wrote that in 2000, a reporter from a nonpartner station was forced to broadcast from the parking lot. Antics such as that, McKenna says, "should have been a much bigger story, and it wasn't, because nobody wanted to tick off the machine." So McKenna, at an alt-weekly that neither covered games nor depended on access, saw an opening. "Nobody was going to write anything about Snyder and the media," he says. "I knew I wouldn't get scooped."
The anti-establishment writer started covering the anti-establishment owner as a beat. In 2005, McKenna investigated whether a Redskins PR flack was anonymously trashing beat writers on message boards. (He never
proved it.) A year later, McKenna busted Snyder for selling peanuts at FedEx Field that were from a defunct airline. When people complained about $25 parking on Fan Appreciation Day, McKenna jumped on it. He discovered that Snyder was sneaking a parking surcharge into the cost of nonfootball events at FedEx Field, making $600,000 for one 2009 Paul McCartney concert. When readers wanted to know what the "M" in Daniel M. Snyder stood for -- well, even McKenna never got to the bottom of that one. "I became a clearinghouse for the oddball negative stuff," he says. "People knew to call me."
But the callers were always the same few, a niche of a niche. "I never felt that anyone was reading," McKenna says. "Until they were."
AT THE MICROPHONE, Portis, wet-cheeked, dives into an unrehearsed litany of acknowledgments. He thanks Shanahan, who coached him for two years in Denver. And half a dozen Broncos. And his mother. Snyder watches on, waiting his turn. But Portis instead thanks another owner -- Denver's Pat Bowlen. Finally, he recalls "one of my favorite people of all time." He turns to Snyder, who once awarded him a $50 million contract, and says, "Sorry, Mr. Snyder, it ain't you. Joe Gibbs."
Snyder laughs at his own expense, which he doesn't do easily. After only three playoff appearances in 13 years, the Redskins owner is not an all-time favorite of anyone -- which he can be thin- or thick-skinned about, depending on the day. "He's a lot more self-aware than he's willing to admit," says a friend. "He concedes that he cares about how the public views him, and that concession takes a piece of his ego and hurts him. But he has now put up a screen between himself and everyone else and said, 'To hell with you.'"
Some Redskins fans would argue that's the motto for Snyder's tenure. In the beginning, the fact that he had always been a fan -- attending games at RFK with his father, Gerry, a freelance writer; eating the specialty Redskins chili
his mom, Arlette, cooked every Sunday; wearing a Sonny Jurgensen No. 9 jersey with DANNY etched on the back -- gave him instant credibility with the locals.
But as it turned out, his fandom became the basis for his blunders. He unapologetically ran the team with a sports-radio caller's impulsiveness and, as always, his own penchant for going big. That's how a boy who was embarrassed by his modest upbringing became the then-youngest CEO ever of a New York Stock Exchange company, eventually selling his marketing business, Snyder Communications, for more than $2 billion; how a loner at Woodward High, according to classmate Marc Smith, ended up marrying a model, Tanya, with whom he has three kids; and how someone who "wanted to be very wealthy and famous and have a lot of control," according to Katharina Aiken, one of his few high school friends, bought the team he loved as a means of control -- and how he couldn't control himself once he owned it.[+] EnlargeChristopher Leaman for ESPN The Magazine"With Snyder, we had 365 days a year of drama," says McKenna.
AS A RESULT, Snyder has committed every ownership sin. Early on, he didn't give coaches any slack. All along, Snyder allowed the perception to permeate that players -- Portis, most noticeably -- ran the team. When the Redskins won, the notion was funny. If Gibbs, the Hall of Fame coach who returned from 2004 to 2007, couldn't get something he wanted, such as a practice bubble, he would say, "Clinton, go talk to Dan!" But the jokes ended when the team lost. With Zorn, Snyder confided in Vinny Cerrato, then-executive vice president of football operations, like a therapist and hung his coach, whom he had hired only after whiffing on other candidates, out to dry. Portis and other players disliked Zorn, and they took their complaints about his playcalling and his arbitrary rules -- such as insisting that Portis remove his hands from his pockets during practice -- over his head, down the hall to the corner office. "Dan gave more say to the players than to the coach," one former starter says.
At the same time, Snyder was still molding the Redskins in his own image by
appealing to players, such as Haynesworth, who were moved by money. As the point man in wooing star free agents, he would boast over bottles of Opus One about his Super Bowl parties with Tom Cruise, remind players that his company produced the Golden Globes, in case they wanted to attend, and offer use of his jet -- emphasizing that it was a $50 million Global Express. Need a dinner reservation? Call his secretary. Need a lawyer? He'll handle it. Just worry about football.
So it was no surprise that when his team lost, Snyder took it personally. "He seemed to live and die with the wins and losses," former Redskins chief operating officer Dave Donovan says. "When I first got there" -- in the Gibbs era -- "it felt like everything was on the right track. But then under Coach Zorn, with the future of the team such a question mark, the losses just killed him."
Watching games from his private box, Snyder would cuss and second-guess plays, unblinkingly huffing past people. "You want to stay out of his way," says Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, a frequent guest. After losses, Snyder would stay until 4 a.m., pounding drinks, downing burgers and pizza and blaming himself for being, in the words of a friend, "his own worst enemy." When public outrage grew so vicious that Snyder temporarily banned signs at FedEx Field in 2009, Redskins officials tried to help him restore his image. One staffer suggested that he drop in on tailgates to remind fans that, in his heart, he was one of them. "No, no, no. I don't need to tell them how much I love the Redskins," he replied. "I'm an owner." A friend advised Snyder to open up about his suffering after losses: "And Dan said, 'I'm angry sometimes, and I'm over the top, and I don't want to admit that.' Why not, Dan? You're a Redskins fan and you can't control it."
After firing Zorn, Snyder embarked on an apology tour of sorts, admitting on E:60 that "I didn't have a clue what I was doing" as a young owner. After hiring Shanahan in January 2010, Snyder benched himself, bestowing on the coach total control over football operations. The only question was whether the owner could stay on the sidelines. "He's had to be in the background," one former team official says. "It must be very frustrating, because he's always been able to do everything he wants. But the one thing he cares about most, he hasn't had a winner. And now, to get fans' confidence back, he's had to walk away."
INSIDE REDSKINS PARK, the response to most of the 488 times over 10 years that McKenna referenced Snyder was: "McKenna? Who cares? Nobody reads him."
But McKenna spoke for a rising swell of dismayed fans who found more joy in the owner's screwups than in the team's performance. "With Snyder, we had 365 days a year of drama," McKenna says. "To someone who had enjoyed Super Bowl wins, this was what you had to get your pleasures from."
In the fall of 2010, after Shanahan's hiring and Snyder's image rehab, City Paper editors faced the unimaginable proposition that the owner might finally have started to get things right. They wanted to take one final shot at him, and like Snyder, they wanted to go big. For years, McKenna had kept a running log of Snyder's biggest missteps, and editor-in-chief Michael Schaffer wanted to empty it in an article to be titled "The Hater's Guide to Dan Snyder." But McKenna didn't want to do it; he thought it was piling on. Plus, as he says, "I didn't hate him." But he acquiesced to his boss, with a caveat that the story's headline reflect his feelings. So it was changed to "The Cranky Redskins Fan's Guide to Dan Snyder," and McKenna spent a week writing an A-to-Z list of the owner's many failings.
The cover of the Nov. 19-25, 2010, City Paper was Snyder's face with devilish horns and a scribbled goatee. Inside, the guide itemized indiscretions such as Snyder's charging fans $10 to attend training camp, his firing Marty Schottenheimer after he went 8-8 in his first and only season, the "Dan-Jazeera" radio stations and a reference that Snyder "got caught forging names as a telemarketer" in 1998. It all added up to an encyclopedic takedown. Snyder privately blew up after hearing about it, furious that after he had tried to change he was being labeled as not only incompetent but as a criminal. Nobody from the Redskins immediately complained to City Paper. "It was business as usual," McKenna says. But then it wasn't.
THE LETTER CAME first, arriving just over a week after the story. It came from Donovan, on behalf of Snyder, to Atalaya Capital Management, a New York-based investment firm that owned City Paper. Among other things, it cited several "blatantly false, misleading or simply irrelevant items" and characterized the cover image as "anti-Semitic." But it was the implication that Snyder himself had committed a crime that raised the specter of a lawsuit. In 2001, Verizon (formerly GTE Communications Corp.) and Snyder Communications were fined $3.1 million for forging customer signatures to switch their phone service -- but Snyder hadn't personally forged names.
City Paper stood by its story, and in February 2011, Snyder, despite the fact that libel cases are almost impossible for public figures to win, sued Atalaya for $2 million in New York court.
Immediately, it backfired. It drew so much traffic to McKenna's story that City Paper's server crashed, and it elevated McKenna to an enemy of the Redskins brass on a scale with the Cowboys. Newspapers, websites and radio stations -- even ones Snyder owned -- went after the owner. In solidarity with the writer, the website Deadspin published a regular column called "We Are All Dave McKenna." So many readers offered donations that City Paper started a legal fund, eventually raising $30,000. That McKenna continued to write about Snyder increased his stature. After all, nobody seemed to know the real goal of Snyder's suit. Did he want McKenna fired? To drive City Paper into bankruptcy? A correction and apology? "I thought Snyder's goal was to stop Dave from writing about the Redskins," Schaffer says. "I was not willing to do that."
But McKenna found that writing about Snyder wasn't much fun anymore. Lawyers reviewed his column before it was published. In April 2011, Snyder dropped the suit in New York and refiled it in DC, naming City Paper, its parent company and McKenna as co-defendants. McKenna had to lawyer up, and City Paper told him he'd have to pay out of his own pocket. But after all the briefs and court filings, after all the threats spoken and written, it ended with a whimper. By late summer, after Snyder let it slip to The New York Times Magazine that he never read the story he was suing over, the owner offered to drop the suit if McKenna agreed not to countersue. McKenna, for his part, wasn't even sure what he might sue Snyder for. His lawyer joked that he should sign the waiver and sue anyway, claiming that he hadn't read it. But McKenna did read and sign it, and when he arrived at a bar a few hours later, his friends "cheered like I'd brought the Lombardi trophy with me."
NOBODY CHEERS WHEN Portis finally gets around to thanking Snyder. Recalling their first meeting, Portis describes the owner as "cocky" and a "little short man." Snyder laughs at himself, again, but it seems like a slight from a player who, unbeknownst to most in attendance, had once felt slighted himself. That's because after Shanahan arrived, Snyder's door closed. The owner who grew up humbly -- "in the shoes of most of us," Portis says -- didn't reach out anymore. The crying boss who once knocked on Portis' hotel room door at 4:40 a.m. to whisper that safety Sean Taylor had died now breezed by in the hallway. "It was awkward," Portis told The Magazine a week before retiring. "I think at the time there was so much pressure on Dan to make sure that organization wasn't run by me. We needed to calm down. It made it strained."
As hard as it has been to step back, Snyder, who declined several interview requests, has stuck to a more disengaged leadership style. His way didn't work, and he told associates, "I'm gonna get this right." Last spring, after the Redskins -- going big, as always -- traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis to draft Robert Griffin III, the team brass hosted the quarterback's family at a Waco, Texas, steak house. Robert Griffin II, RG3's father, expected Snyder, owing to his reputation, to run the show. Instead, Snyder steered the conversation away from himself so that the quarterback could chat with Shanahan. "He ceded authority at the table," says Griffin II. "He basically said, 'Coach, make sure you talk to Robert.' He wasn't trying to be overbearing."
Snyder was selling his coach, not himself. He was offering football, not perks. He was being an owner, not a general manager. "He's realized that it's not good business to be interfering or perceived to be interfering," says a friend.
It's hard to tell if the fan in Snyder enjoys it. Like Jerry Jones, Snyder has been transparent in his desire to be a football guy. He sometimes watches film and likes to talk shop with football staffers and agents. One of the
central complications in working for Snyder is that he has so few close friends that his football guys, by proxy, become them, which is why he took Allen and Shanahan to the Bahamas to celebrate the RG3 trade. "He merges personal and business," says Donovan. "Meetings turn into dinners, which turn into movies at his house, which turn into meetings again."
During the day, Snyder might call a staffer into his office and ask him to light a cigar, just so the owner, who quit stogies years ago, can revel in the smoke. He is a night owl, wired on Diet Mountain Dew, so an employee might get a call at 4 a.m. If it's an 8 a.m. call, watch out; that means he hasn't slept. But while almost all associates prefer to talk off the record, fearing Snyder's wrath, most don't trash him. Many see a well-intentioned but distrusting boss who is nothing if not consistent. He always goes big and lives and dies with the results. Donovan, now a partner at a DC law firm, says that during his six years with the Redskins, "Dan didn't change. My understanding of him changed."
Snyder can be petulant, gnawing on an unlit cigar and grinding the wet end into someone's neck. He can be thoughtful; after Chris Wallace's father, Mike, the legendary 60 Minutes reporter, died in April, Snyder was one of the people who sent Chris a card and flowers. He can flaunt his status, sometimes having his driver drop him off at the front door of Redskins Park instead of at his parking space 10 yards away. And he can be generous. A few years ago, Snyder scored an advance copy of Star Trek and hosted Donovan's family at his home theater. The Snyders greeted their guests wearing pointy ears made from aluminum foil. "I thought, If people could see this," Donovan says.
"Snyder can't push a button and be diplomatic or push a button and be tough," says a friend. "One of the things I find winning about him, even though he has all these flaws, is that he is who he is. You never have to wonder what you'll get."
Now all you get is less. Snyder seems so intent on remaining low-key that he uses it as a sell, explaining to sponsors that he used to "f -- up this and f -- up that," but now "people think I run everything, but I don't." In his box during games, he is still profane, still a second-guesser, still irritated when guests arrive wearing the opponent's colors. "People don't think," he mumbled about them to Sacramento Kings owner Gavin Maloof last year. But he is less involved. He still eats and drinks in his box after a loss, but he stays until only 1 a.m.
ON AN AUGUST afternoon, McKenna sits at a playground picnic table a few miles north of the White House, watching his two young sons. This is his life now. After 25 years and 51 weeks, he quit the City Paper last December and now writes as a freelancer. He went out with a bang, announcing his departure at the end of a column in which he named Snyder DC's Unsportsman of the Year -- for the fourth time. But the truth was that he had nothing left to say. "I had to go," he says. "I was so poisoned. I didn't want to write anymore."
Like much of DC, McKenna tried to transfer his love from the Redskins to the playoff-bound Nationals. But when you're born into football, you'll always return. So he is a fan again -- just a fan. Every Sunday "is like Thanksgiving." He has raised his sons to root for the Redskins too, and if Snyder appears on-screen, McKenna refrains from mentioning that the owner sued Daddy for $2 million. "Rooting for the home team is like rooting for family," McKenna says. "You root for family even when there's problems."
He initially dismissed the RG3 trade as typical Snyder impulsiveness. "It's the blueprint from 1999," says McKenna. "Give up all these picks, do something that's never been done. And it always ends badly." But as he watched Griffin's debut, watched him outplay Drew Brees by showing glimpses of Brees' own game -- improvisational, daring, decisive -- he saw ability that suspends disillusionment and restores something more
elemental: hope. Then he watched a commercial that attributed Doug Flutie's 1984 Hail Mary pass to logistics and thought of Snyder. "That ad, and the game itself, reminded me that Hail Marys work now and then," he says.
PORTIS CAN'T HELP it. He appears to rib Snyder one last time, sending a shout-out to "his favorite person on the Redskins," and once again, it's not the owner. It's BJ, the team receptionist. Soon, the room rises in applause. Portis lingers, posing for pictures, giving interviews, signing autographs, reveling in the moment that the owner who always goes big provided him. But as the crowd dissipates, Snyder is less than small. He is gone, having exited through a side door, before anyone can notice.
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