One of the foundational moments in the modern history of sports social justice — in professional leagues stepping up and doing "the right thing" — came in 2014, when the new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, held a news conference and declared Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling “banned for life” from the league for wildly racist comments. You can make an argument that Silver’s powerful statement fortified the NBA’s place as the “progressive” sports league and set in motion the age of athlete activism and empowerment that exploded in its wake. It felt like the good guys had won.
Silver’s powerful statement fortified the NBA’s place as the “progressive” sports league and set in motion the age of athlete activism.
But it is also worth remembering what Sterling’s banishment really meant. Because he was an owner of a team, rather than an employee or a player, Silver couldn’t really “ban” him any more than President Joe Biden could “ban” Elon Musk from owning Twitter. What he could do is put enough pressure on him that he felt compelled to sell his team, which, thanks in large to Sterling’s estranged wife, eventually happened. So Sterling — again, truly one of the most loathsome characters in the last 50 years of sports — had to suffer the ultimate punishment: He was forced to accept $2 billion of Steve Ballmer’s money for his team. This is how sports owners are really punished. This is as bad as it gets for them.
And these lessons feel newly relevant as the NFL’s Daniel Snyder car-crash continues in slow motion. Snyder, the longtime owner of the Washington Commanders (a name he once refused to change and only did so after years of unrelenting pressure), announced Wednesday that he and his wife, Tanya, had hired Bank of America to “consider potential transactions.” It’s a move that could signal a potential sale of the team. (Tanya Snyder, non-Washington fans may or may not remember, became the team’s co-CEO last year, a position she was promoted to after the team was hit with a cavalcade of sexual harassment lawsuits, including several specifically pointing at Snyder. Snyder has denied any wrongdoing.)
Snyder has fought off calls to sell the team throughout his reign in Washington as the city has watched a once-proud franchise flounder on the field and off, constantly embarrassing the league with scandal after scandal. (Here’s a chronicle of many of the allegations, but note that piece is 10 years old.) Now, the walls seem to finally be closing in, with other owners calling for him to sell the team and an investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s office involving financial improprieties (an attorney representing the Commanders told ESPN any such "allegations are simply untrue.") Snyder is not officially selling the team yet — it’s possible he has brought in Bank of America as a diversionary tactic — but even that is a sign that he is, at last, facing some serious headwinds.
Of course, sports owners’ headwinds are a lot different than yours and mine. Just like Don Sterling, Snyder’s worst-case scenario is, well, a pretty wonderful one for him. If Snyder does end up selling the team, he could end up ranking in more money than anyone has ever received for a sports franchise. Forbes estimates that the Commanders are the sixth-most valuable franchise in the NFL, valued at $5.6 billion, a truly remarkable sum considering how much damage has been done to that team’s reputation. The most lucrative franchise sale in United States sports history came just last year, when the Walton-Penner group bought the Denver Broncos for $4.65 billion. Washington — with its vast fanbase, storied history and status as, still, one of the NFL’s jewel franchises — would almost surely surpass that.
Which means Daniel Snyder’s punishment will be the biggest windfall in American sports history.
Just like Don Sterling, Snyder’s worst-case scenario is, well, a pretty wonderful one for him.
If you or I — or, more to the point, a Washington executive or a player — were to ravage the reputation of one of the most sterling brands in American sports, either via scandal or repeated, sustained incompetence, we would get fired. We would lose our jobs, we would be mocked in the public square, we’d likely have a very hard time finding anyone willing to hire us in such a position again. We would face the ramifications of all that we had done, all the mistakes we had made, all the venality we’d foisted upon an unsuspecting public.
Daniel Snyder, though, like Donald Sterling before him, will face no such punishment. He will in fact become richer than he already is, again, just like Sterling did when he sold his team.
To be fair, Washington Commanders fans will benefit if Snyder sells the team and someone less buffoonish and cruel (and incredibly shady) buys it. The team might even start winning games again. The NFL will also benefit if Snyder sells the team, as will the employees who alleged they have long suffered under his leadership. It’s possible a long-needed new stadium could finally materialize. Heck, the world will benefit if Snyder sells the team, if just not to have to hear about him anymore. But let there be no doubt about it: If Snyder sells the team, no one on earth will benefit more than Daniel Snyder. We should all face such worst-case scenarios.