NFL Fines Dan Snyder $50 Million After Approving His $6 Billion Sale of Washington Commanders

From a Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Beaton and Louise Radnofsky headlined “NFL Fines Dan Snyder $50 Million After Approving His $6 Billion Sale of Washington Commanders”:

NFL owners unanimously approved Dan Snyder’s sale of the Washington Commanders to a group led by private equity billionaire Josh Harris, then immediately levied Snyder with a record $60 million fine after presenting the findings of the latest NFL-led investigation into the team and its owner.

Approval of the deal allows it to clear the final hurdle before the completion of a record-setting transaction that will extricate the league of one of its biggest headaches.

But the approval comes after the league fined Snyder for the second time in about two years for his operation of the team. The team was previously fined a then-record $10 million in 2021 following a prior investigation into the team’s hostile workplace.

The findings from the probe, led by former Securities and Exchange chairwoman Mary Jo White and released by the league, corroborated a woman’s allegations of sexual misconduct against Snyder and also sustained another former employee’s allegations that the team improperly withheld approximately $11 million that should have been shared with the league’s 31 other teams.

The 23-page report—which followed criticism that the NFL issued no such detailed findings after a previous investigation into the team and Snyder wrapped in 2021—sustained the two main allegations against Snyder and provided him with a rough final exit from the league. The report also blasted the club and Snyder for failing to cooperate, saying that Snyder refused to be interviewed for a year, and when he finally did so he declared that it would be limited to just one hour. It also said the club for months refused to produce critical documents involving the financial allegations.

“The conduct substantiated in Ms. White’s findings has no place in the NFL,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Snyder had been saddled with problems for years—over the franchise’s previous name, misconduct within the organization and allegations about his own behavior—that sparked widespread backlash and multiple investigations before he began exploring a sale last year. A consortium led by Harris, who co-founded Apollo Global Management and also co-owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers among other sports interests, ultimately won the bidding for about $6 billion.

Snyder first purchased the club then known as the Washington Redskins for $800 million in 1999, and in the time since one of the NFL’s hallmark franchises deteriorated both on and off the field. The team, which had won three Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s, churned out losing season after losing season. But the team’s biggest issues had nothing to do with the team’s struggles to win football games.

Those controversies crescendoed in 2020 on multiple fronts. Longstanding criticism that the team’s name was a racial slur was amplified by national protests against racism, and even the team’s own sponsors called for a change. That forced Snyder’s hand to do what he had once vowed never to do and abandon the moniker, changing it to the Washington Football Team before Commanders was adopted.

Around the same time, Snyder was caught in an unusually public feud with his minority partners, who were trying to oust him and accused him of financial wrongdoing. The kerfuffle was eventually settled when he agreed to buy out their shares.

But the biggest concern that posed an existential threat to Snyder’s ownership of the team was the franchise’s workplace culture—and his own alleged behavior.

After numerous women reported being sexually and verbally harassed while working for the club, the team hired an outside attorney to conduct an investigation into the matter. The league eventually assumed oversight of the probe, and it was later revealed that the NFL and Commanders entered into a common interest agreement when it changed hands, which prevented the league and team from releasing information without the other’s consent.

The NFL was widely assailed once it released the results of that investigation in 2021. Although the league fined the club $10 million and broadly concluded that the team’s workplace was toxic, especially toward women, it did not issue a detailed report of the probe’s findings, as the league had often done with past investigations. Critics, including the attorneys representing former employees, slammed the league over the lack of transparency and accused it of covering up the behavior of an owner.

While Snyder has apologized for the team’s culture, he has denied all allegations of personal wrongdoing. The incidents involving Snyder include a $1.6 million settlement he paid a woman in 2009 over a sexual harassment allegation.

Months after the investigation concluded, questions roared back to life after The Wall Street Journal first reported on emails that surfaced in connection with the probe, including one in which then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden used a racial trope. Shortly afterward, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform launched its own investigation into the team’s workplace culture and how the NFL handled its own investigation.

During a roundtable hosted by the House committee in February 2022, Tiffani Johnston, a former cheerleader and marketing manager for the team, made a new claim of sexual harassment against Snyder, which prompted the NFL to launch the investigation by White. Snyder denied the allegation, saying: “I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person.”

Johnston said that Snyder, during a work dinner, placed his hand on her thigh until she removed it. Afterward, she said, Snyder placed his hand on her back and tried to “aggressively” push her into a car until his lawyer intervened and said it was a bad idea. She said she was told to not discuss what had occurred.

White’s report sustained both allegations from Johnston, and an additional allegation that a former senior executive of the club improperly took and viewed an unedited calendar photograph of Johnston, while adding there was insufficient evidence to suggest Snyder had been involved in that incident.

The congressional committee’s inquiry also generated accusations about the team’s financial practices, after a former employee gave them evidence that the team might have kept millions of dollars owed to fans on ticket deposits, and that it withheld money it was supposed to share with the league.

Lawmakers said that Jason Friedman, a former vice president of sales and customer service with the franchise until 2020, had provided documents to suggest senior team officials, including Snyder, engaged in a “long-running, and potentially unlawful pattern of financial conduct.” The committee made the allegations public when it turned them over to the Federal Trade Commission in April 2022.

Among the accusations was a scheme in which the team allegedly tried to process revenue from Commanders home games, which should have been shared with the NFL, as “bogus” fees from unrelated events that would not have to be shared with the league.

According to Friedman and a 2013 email, the club attributed $88,000 in that shareable revenue to a Kenny Chesney concert held at the stadium that year. In another instance, the club allegedly funneled $162,360 of Commanders game ticket revenue through a Notre Dame-Navy college football game held at FedExField in 2014.

Friedman characterized this as the Commanders maintaining two sets of books: one that was shared with the NFL, but underreported certain ticket revenue; and another internal set of books that included the complete and accurate revenue and was “shown to Mr. Snyder.”

He also provided indications that the team may have withheld millions of dollars in refundable security deposits owed to fans over a decade. As of 2016, the amount stood at $5 million for around 2,000 accounts, the committee said.

The team at the time broadly denied financial wrongdoing, saying: “There has been absolutely no withholding of ticket revenue at any time by the Commanders. Those revenues are subject to independent audits by multiple parties…Anyone who offered testimony suggesting a withholding of revenue has committed perjury, plain and simple.”

“Mr. Friedman’s allegations that the Club intentionally shielded and withheld an amount of shareable NFL revenues in violation of NFL policies, including forfeited security deposits, are sustained,” White’s report said. “Certain former senior executives had knowledge of and directed this conduct.”

The report said that the evidence was inconclusive as to Snyder’s personal participation in the revenue-shielding, and there was insufficient evidence to show his personal participation in the security-deposit issues.

This April the District of Columbia reached a settlement agreement with the Commanders football team over allegations that the team systematically withheld fans’ ticket deposits, made the reimbursement process intentionally difficult and redirected those funds for the team’s own purposes.

Under the agreement, the team’s ownership corporation, Pro-Football Inc. will pay $425,000 to the District for restitution, attorneys’ fees, costs associated with the investigation and contributions to D.C.’s litigation support fund.

The team was also required to return an estimated $200,000 of outstanding security deposits to customers, after conducting a public records search for their contact information and attempting to notify them by letter, phone call and mail, with regular progress reports to the attorney general’s office.

Now as NFL training camps get going across the country, Commanders fans can look forward to a new ownership group to re-establish the franchise as one of the sport’s crown jewels. Those within the league are already expressing that optimism.

Shortly before the vote to approve the sale, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones dubbed it a “hallmark day.”

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