Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2022

In DC, The Ritual Unfolds

By now the sequence of events is so familiar it can fairly be described as ritual.  Call it the expulsion rite of a billionaire boy’s club, for anyone qualifying for membership in the supremely exclusive fraternities of franchise owners in our various major sports leagues is always extremely wealthy and, with the rarest of exceptions, male.  While their teams may be archrivals, with fanbases that despise each other, those in the little clubs of NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS owners, like adolescents joined by a secret handshake, do their best to maintain a veneer of compatibility and common purpose, usually guided in public by their chief employee, the league commissioner.

But while the principal goal of each team’s players and fans may be a championship, titles and rings and parades are welcome but secondary to members of the club.  For owners, the first objective is profit, both year in and year out from the sale of tickets and concessions, and over the longer term from ever larger broadcast contracts and steady growth in the value of their franchise.  The drive for profit is helped by putting a competitive product on the field, of course, but even more important is keeping the focus of fans and the media on the sport.  In short, an owner can act pretty much however he pleases, just so long as he doesn’t become a distraction.

That is a sufficiently lax attitude toward personal behavior as to allow a miscreant to be a royal pain in the rear to his fellow owners.  Al Davis, during four and a half decades at the helm of the NFL’s Raiders, was involved in multiple lawsuits against the league, most revolving around his efforts to move the team over the objections of his fellow owners.  But the Raiders were usually good, sometimes great, and Davis was a leader in diversity efforts for a league in which the most important employees – the players – were increasingly Black. 

Still, often enough that, as noted, we all know the steps to the dance, an owner breaches even the generous boundaries of these little clubs.  When that happens, there is sometimes an initial tendency on the part of the other members to close ranks.  But as the distraction grows, opinions quickly shift.   NBA owners didn’t mind octogenarian L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling parading around with a mistress, nor his history of being sued for discrimination in his other business as a landlord.  But when TMZ released audiotape of Sterling making racist comments to that lover in April 2014, he became a distraction.  It took NBA commissioner Adam Silver less than a week to ban Sterling, and barely six weeks after the story broke for the sale of the Clippers to be announced.

Much more recently, Silver again made an unwanted appearance before the microphones, initially explaining that he had no power to force owner Robert Sarver to sell the Phoenix Suns, after an investigation found the owner had regularly used racist language and harassed female employees.  Silver’s statement was that of an employee of his league’s club members indulging their natural tendency to band together.  But soon enough, as the sordid Sarver story became a growing distraction, and with a new basketball season looming, Sarver announced he would sell both the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury.  Sarver attributed his decision to “an unforgiving climate,” which is no doubt what he found in conversations with other members of his elite fraternity. 

And just last week, the devastating report by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on sexual abuse and harassment in women’s professional soccer led to multiple firings and resignations of coaches and executives in the NWSL.  So far one owner, Merritt Paulson of the Portland Thorns, has “stepped back” from his role.  No doubt he hopes to weather the storm in a sport that is not as close to the media’s center stage.  But he shouldn’t count on it.

Which brings us back to the NFL, and the worst owner of any sports team in any league, Daniel Snyder.  Once upon what seems like a very long time ago, then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called him “the perfect person” to own the league’s Washington, D.C. franchise.  But Snyder, then just in his mid-30s, quickly alienated many of his fellow club owners, most of whom were decades older, with his arrogance and disrespectful attitude.  As detailed in a lengthy ESPN story this week, the relationship between the Commanders’ owner and his 31 associates has only gone downhill since. 

Yet personal animus, not to mention Washington’s usually hapless performance on the field, was always set aside, because Snyder was not a distraction.  Now that has changed.  Two years ago, a Washington Post report exposed a toxic work culture towards women, which led to an investigation by the league.  But with the ritual then in its early stages, the other owners banded together to hamstring the inquiry, eventually prohibiting the preparation of a written report.  But the NFL has now initiated a new investigation, and at least one woman has reportedly offered what the ESPN story described as “tipping point” testimony against Snyder.  On top of the off-field issues, Washington’s years of consistently poor play and the resulting impact on a fanbase that once packed FedEx Field every week has made the franchise a point of economic concern for the league.

It is fair to say that for the other members of the NFL’s little owner fraternity, Daniel Snyder has become a distraction.  That he knows this is now evident, with multiple media outlets describing thinly veiled threats by the Commanders’ owner to reveal damaging information about his fellow club members and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, dirt supposedly obtained by private investigators in Snyder’s employ.

The end game could take some time.  Snyder is clearly determined to hold on, and the owners club is still a club.  But every fan who has watched the rite unfold before surely senses that this episode has moved into its closing stages.  The owner grows more desperate, which only makes his fraternity brothers more determined.  The bond between them, once broken, cannot be repaired, because all the lingering resentments that have been set aside for years now come flooding back.  The final chapter is always the same – a sale, a new owner, and, one hopes, better days.  For fans of a once great and now long diminished franchise, those last pages of this long story can’t come soon enough.   

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