News & Politics

5 Takeaways From ESPN’s (Newest) Bombshell Dan Snyder Report

The embattled Washington Commanders owner is back in the news, and none of it is good.

Commanders owner Dan Snyder. Photograph by Flickr user Keith Allison.

Dan Snyder is reportedly big mad at the Washington Post for its ongoing reporting on the Washington Commanders’ many-splendored scandals—so much so that he is allegedly stiff-arming potential team buyer and Post owner Jeff Bezos. When it comes to shooting the messenger, however, the embattled Commanders owner might want to save some of his ire for ESPN. Last October, the sports network’s website published a scathing report on Snyder’s arguable mismanagement of the franchise and deeply strained relations with other National Football League team owners; today, Pulitzer Prize-winning ESPN reporter Don Van Natta is back with a blockbuster story detailing possible bank fraud (note: which is a crime) and other alleged financial improprieties involving Snyder. Here are the key takeaways:

Snyder allegedly took out a very big loan without necessary approval, which could become a much bigger problem

In April of 2020, then-Commanders minority owners Robert Rothman, Dwight Schar, and Fred Smith noticed something odd: a footnote in a team financial report indicating the the team had taken out a $55 million credit line 16 months earlier.

The problem? The three minority owners didn’t know about the loan. Nor had they approved it—even though, as then-members of the team’s board of directors, their knowledge and approval was legally required for Snyder to borrow the money. 

When the trio found out about the loan, they reportedly—and understandably!—were pretty upset, and their dispute with Snyder ultimately ended up in an arbitration overseen by the NFL. (More on that in a bit). ESPN obtained hundreds of pages of arbitration documents, which along with interviews indicate that Bank of America officials asked Commanders executives repeatedly for proof that the board had approved the loan—proof that the team never provided, because, uh, it didn’t exist.

This is now a bigger potential problem for Snyder, and not just because it pissed off his former business partners. The $55 million loan, ESPN reports, has become a “primary focus” of a federal investigation into allegations of financial misconduct by Snyder and the Commanders, with a criminal inquiry being led by a team of FBI and IRS agents.

A lawyer and spokeswoman for the Commanders each declined to answer ESPN’s questions about the loan. Said one source to ESPN about the alleged misconduct: “this is jail time kind of fraud.”

Snyder allegedly has been using the Commanders as his “personal piggy bank”

After protesting the loan, Rothman, Schar, and Smith reportedly looked more closely into the team’s finances and concluded that Snyder was treating the Commanders like a “personal piggy bank.” A 61-page arbitration petition filed confidentially with the NFL by the trio in June 2020 and later obtained by ESPN alleges that Snyder:

  • Paid himself a $10 million annual salary.
  • Leased his personal jets back to the team and charged the Commanders another $4.5 million to put the team’s logo on one of those jets, calling it “an advertising fee.”
  • Used team funds to help pay for his two “personal yachts, multiple residences, the services of more than 60 members of his personal staff, multiple vehicles in the U.S. and Europe and countless meals, wine/beverages [and] entertainment.”
  • Planned in 2020 to expense an additional $8 million-plus in “unreimbursed business expenses” for vehicle costs, “extra security required during foreign travel (due to his high-profile position as Owner),” and a 2018 yacht party held in the south of France, where Snyder treated Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to “world-class cuisine prepared by some of the top personal chefs in the world and the highest quality wine/beverages.”

According to ESPN, the petition also claims that the trio did not authorize Snyder’s “self-dealing.”

Snyder maybe tried to make the whole thing go away quietly, and the NFL maybe did the same?

After the trio confronted Snyder about the loan and other issues—including a failure in April 2020 to pay them their quarterly share of team profits—the Commanders owner removed them from the team’s six-member board. Rothman, Schar, and Smith then went to the NFL for arbitration, informing the league about the loan and alleged self-dealing and asking commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend or remove Snyder.

According to ESPN, the NFL already knew about Snyder’s $55 million loan—which ultimately was guaranteed by the league. Shortly after the trio asked the NFL’s arbitrator to seek documents from Bank of America showing that they approved the loan—documents that, again, don’t exist—the league asked everyone to move to league-led mediation.

In that mediation, a source told ESPN, the NFL refused to consider investigating the loan, instead telling the trio that they had only one option: reach an agreement to sell their shares in the Commanders to Snyder. Within a month, a deal was struck: Snyder bought Rothman, Schar, and Smith out for $875 million. To finance the purchase, Snyder received the NFL’s permission to borrow $450 million from…Bank of America. 

The Commanders aren’t doing so hot—on and off the field

Yes, the Commanders remain the perennial biggest sports story in town. And yes, owning a NFL team remains a license to print money—between soaring, multibillion-dollar national TV rights and the league-wide revenue sharing (read: socialism, but only for the rugged, bootstrapp-y capitalists who own the teams) that accompanies them, it’s almost impossible for someone like Snyder to go broke. 

That said, Snyder is very arguably doing a lousy job at the one thing he’s supposed to be good at: making money. According to ESPN, the Commanders’ local revenues dropped from $241 million in fiscal year 2009 to $160 million in fiscal year 2020—a massive drop-off during a decade in which cheap money and America’s insatiable appetite for amusement had most other major sports and entertainment properties trending in the opposite direction.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s, like, Carson Wentz-level bad.

Reports that Snyder is once again irritating other NFL owners suddenly make more sense

On Monday, the Post reported that other NFL owners are getting fed up with Snyder, and according to one source will “definitely” move toward a vote removing him from the league if he does not sell the Commanders. Their latest source of heartburn? Snyder has demanded that the league indemnify him against future legal liability and costs if he sells, something that angered Goodell and that other owners see as “absurd.”

While Snyder’s demand seems related to the federal criminal inquiry around the loan—as well as the ongoing NFL investigation into the team’s allegedly toxic workplace, in case you forgot—it’s possible that there are even more shoes out there, just waiting to publicly drop. Asked what the Commanders owner and his attorneys are seeking to be indemnified against, a source told the Post, “Literally everything.”

Patrick Hruby
Deputy Editor