A Tale of Two NFL Owners, One a Winner, One a Loser, and What President Trump Can Learn From Them

Donald Trump as owner of the short-lived New Jersey Generals of the USFL.

One of the hard lessons I learned as a Washington editor was to be wary of people who own sports teams. The owners I dealt with had lots of money and lawyers and were a little…it’s hard to think of just the right word…they’re not normal.

The two who gave me the most headaches as editor of the Washingtonian were Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins from 1974 until he died in 1997, and Daniel Snyder, who bought the team in 1999.

Jack—you had to call him Mr. Cooke—had made a lot of money in cable television and was kind of a Donald Trump character—loud and bullying. Like President Trump, he also had a lot of woman problems, which led to our most expensive legal trouble with him.

In 1988, at the age of 74, he had gone to the altar for the third time, marrying  Suzanne Martin, then 31. Soon there was a baby, Jacqueline, and then a divorce. The Washingtonian ran a cover story by Kitty Kelley about Suzanne’s life with Jack, with Suzanne supplying Kitty with the kind of details that would drive any man crazy.

In 1989 we followed up with another story, “Driving Mr. Cooke,” in which his onetime chauffeur disclosed some unattractive details about what it was like working for Mr. Cooke. Still seething over the Kitty Kelley story, he said enough is enough—he filed a lawsuit.

It would take 10,000 words to capture the drama and cost of that lawsuit. Jack seemed more interested in making our life miserable than in any settlement.

A favorite legal moment: We were taking the deposition of Marlene Cooke, also known as the Bolivian bombshell, who had become Jack’s fourth wife. On one side of a long table I sat with Sam Wood, our attorney. On the other side were Marlene, Jack, and six lawyers, including Milton Gould, the name partner of Shea & Gould, a prominent New York firm. Among the other five lawyers was Washington’s leading African-American lawyer. Sam, our lone lawyer, was in his 30s and had a boyish look.

As we were taking a noon break from the deposition, the stenographer turned off her machine. As we started to get up, Jack said, “Mr. Wood, my friends in Baltimore tell me you have been educated beyond your intelligence.”

Without missing a beat, Sam said, “Mr. Cooke, my friends in Washington tell me you’re an asshole.”

Six months later and after about a million dollars in legal fees, the suit was settled for five figures.

After the litigation, Jack continued to call me to complain about our Redskins stories—that was before the Internet when we could attract attention and readers with gossip and inside stuff that the Washington Post didn’t have.  When he called, I learned to listen, say “Yes, Mr. Cooke,” and let him blow off steam, figuring that was better than having to talk to his lawyers. Mr. Cooke didn’t  believe in permanent enemies and he knew that sports teams benefit from lots of press coverage.

And he was a successful owner. He won three Super Bowls because he had one important virtue: He knew what he didn’t know. He hired Bobby Beathard as Redskins general manager and Joe Gibbs as coach. He was content to talk loudly and entertain important people in the owner’s box and pose with Super Bowl trophies while Beathard and Gibbs actually ran things.

Enter Dan Snyder in 1999—he bought the team for a record price of $800 million. Here’s Wikipedia—a bit condensed—on Snyder’s background:

In 1989, Snyder and his sister Michele founded a wallboard advertising company with seed money from his father, who took a second mortgage on his property, and his sister, who maxed out her credit cards at $35,000. They concentrated on wallboards in doctors’ offices and colleges. They married the ads with the distribution of product samples—such as soaps and packages of medicine. The business was a success and Snyder and his sister grew the business organically and through acquisitions and expanded its activities to all aspects of outsourced marketing, including direct marketing, database marketing, proprietary product sampling, sponsored information display, call centers, and field sales. In 1992, the company expanded into telemarketing. Snyder Communications revenues rose from $2.7 million in 1991 to $4.1 million in 1992 and $9 million in 1993.

In an initial public offering for Snyder Communications in 1996, Daniel Snyder became the youngest ever CEO of a NYSE listed company at the age of 32. Snyder’s investors, including media mogul Barry Diller and Democratic Party icon Robert Strauss, earned significant returns on their initial investment. Mortimer Zuckerman and Fred Drasner, whom Snyder owed $3 million from the failure of his first business venture, were given company stock, which ended up being worth more than $500 million. His parents sold their stock in the company for $60 million.

Snyder continued to expand the company through a string of acquisitions, including Arnold Communications in 1997. By 1998, the company had 12,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenues. In April 2000, Snyder Communications was sold to the French advertising and marketing services group Havas in an all-stock transaction valued at in excess of $2 billion, the largest transaction in the history of the advertising/marketing industry. Snyder’s personal share of the proceeds was estimated to be $300 million.

Like Cooke, Snyder had lawyers who made phone calls and wrote letters to editors who displeased him.

Like Cooke, Snyder enjoyed posing for pictures at Redskins practices and entertaining important Washingtonians in his owner’s box. Unlike Cooke, he did very little talking to the media himself.

The big difference between the two men? Snyder thought he knew enough about football to actively run the team. In 18 years of ownership, he’s made news by signing big name players who didn’t deliver and he’s hired and fired many coaches and general managers. Because he didn’t know what he didn’t know, he’s won 125 games and lost 162 games and he’s never come close to seeing the Redskins play in a Super Bowl.

As for Donald Trump, he’s never owned an NFL team but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Joe Nocera in the February 2016 New York Times, had a terrific piece headlined: Donald Trump’s Less-Than-Artful Failure in Pro Football.

Some excerpts:

As he has all his life, Trump yearned to be in the big arena, and in sports, there was nothing bigger than the N.F.L. Rather than seeing the genuine possibility of building a stand-alone league by steering clear of the N.F.L.—and hitching its wagon to ESPN, which itself was not ready for the N.F.L.—his model was the A.F.L., which had ultimately forced a merger with the older league. . . .

How was Trump planning to dig the U.S.F.L. out of a hole he had largely created? Litigation, of course! The U.S.F.L. would sue the N.F.L. for being an illegal monopolist. Among other things, the lawsuit charged that the N.F.L., by having TV contracts with the three major networks (this was pre-Fox), was preventing the U.S.F.L. from signing a television deal for a fall season. It asked for $1.32 billion in damages, which in an antitrust case are trebled if the plaintiffs win. That would be more than enough not only to sustain the league, but also to enrich its beleaguered owners.

If you are a sports fan of a certain age, you surely remember how that trial ended. The jury found that the N.F.L.’s monopolistic practices had indeed injured the U.S.F.L. Then came the coup de grâce: It awarded damages of one dollar. Trebled, that came to $3. With interest, it was $3.76.

The U.S.F.L. appealed, claiming that the trial judge should have excluded some of the most damning evidence against it. The appeals court rejected that argument, writing, “Courts do not exclude evidence of a victim’s suicide in a murder trial.” Needless to say, the U.S.F.L. never played another down.

What can be learned from all this? Cooke, Snyder and Trump all believed in having lots of lawyers and using them to intimidate people. Cooke and Snyder were quick to let a magazine editor know that displeasing them triggered legal calls and letters.

As for President Trump, see yesterday’s New York Times Magazine for a good story: “All the President’s Lawyers: Donald Trump’s life and career have been defined by his legal battles. But do the attorneys who guided him through the courtrooms of New York and New Jersey know how to navigate Washington?”

Jack Kent Cooke was smarter than Daniel Snyder: As owner of the Redskins, he knew what he didn’t know. Cooke made a lot of noise but he knew that impulsive decision-making was not the way to win and you had to hire good people and let them do their jobs.

Snyder now seems to have moved toward the Cooke model of hiring smart people—people who know more about NFL football than he does—and giving them the freedom to succeed. We’ll see if he can make the Redskins into a winner.

What kind of NFL owner would Donald Trump have been if he had succeeded in merging the USFL into the NFL? Would he have been a Jack Kent Cooke owner or Daniel Snyder owner?

As President, he appears to have the worst qualities of Cooke and Snyder: He’s often noisy, overbearing, and boorish like Cooke. And in running the country, he seems to think, like Snyder, that he can do it better than the people who really know what they’re doing.

Mr. Snyder, invite President Trump to sit in the owner’s box at a Redskins game and tell him what you’ve learned about winning and losing: You’ll win more if you hire good people and let them do their jobs.


  1. Ervin S. Duggan says

    This post suggests that Jack Limpert is not only a great editor, but a great storyteller as well.


    Second that.

  3. Translation of the 9:06 July 10 comment:

    The ultimate knowledge.

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