Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Sympathy for the Devil

Dan Snyder was a terrible owner. We’ll miss him.


For the first time in a long time, the winds of optimism are blowing over the benighted collection of forums and fan blogs devoted to the American professional football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins. After many years, the owner has been fired.

Dan Snyder, the owner in question, has reportedly accepted a $6 billion offer from a group led by Josh Harris, a private equity investor from Chevy Chase, Maryland. The NFL is deliberating on whether to sign off on the deal. When it does—based on current reporting, there is no reason to think it won’t—it will end twenty-four years of disappointment and frustration.


Even by the standards of bad football teams, the fans of the American professional football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins have had a tough row to hoe. In the Snyder era, they have gone 164–220–2 in the regular season and 2–6 in the postseason. Not so bad in raw numbers as the Detroit Lions, but not good. A more upsetting and illuminating number is the twenty-seven starting quarterbacks the team has fielded in twenty-four years. The American professional football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins is a machine for destroying quarterbacks.

I have spent most of my conscious life hating Snyder’s guts. It’s not hard on a 164–220–2 record. My parents were products of the team’s dynasty era, and, qua owner, Snyder quickly showed that he couldn’t hold a candle to Jack Kent Cooke. (“He was a real piece of work,” my father would say, “but he ran a good football team.”) And the face Snyder presented to the world was unlovely: The legendary tantrums. The constant conflict with the league and the owners. (The man’s only friend among the owners: Jerry Jones, the embodiment of evil.) The juvenile acts of revenge. The retrospectively very funny beef with the federal government over cutting down some trees. The late allegations of sexual and financial improprieties in the organization.

So it is strange to find myself feeling something melancholy when I see the news—pity, maybe, or sympathy, or regret. Maybe it’s the perverse fondness for something you have spent your whole life hating: television commercials, the intro to “Summer Breeze.” Nobody really wants the Road Runner to finish off Wile E. Coyote; you’d miss having him around. (This dynamic is clearly at work in the press’s obvious yearning for Donald Trump’s return.) Maybe it’s the sickening feeling of watching somebody else have something he loves get turned into something unrecognizable and taken away.

Would it sound strange if I said the problem was that Dan Snyder is a hopeless romantic? An illuminating episode came during the 2013 Wild Card game against the Seahawks. Snyder overrode Mike Shanahan’s initial call to pull out the injured Heisman-winning rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III. The consequent ACL/LCL tear ended Griffin’s upward trajectory; he closed his career as second backup for the Baltimore Ravens in 2020. We also lost the game anyway.

Fans at the time were dismayed; many pointed out that the team didn’t have a chance in the next round, and winning one game wasn’t worth throwing a marquee quarterback’s career away. On the level of facts, hard-headed management, balance-sheets and clipboards, they were right. But that isn’t the level where Snyder seems to operate.


At heart, Snyder seems to have believed in the Magic of Football. In a movie, if the plucky, clean-cut, hugely talented rookie quarterback comes to you, the team owner, and says that he can play on the injury, coach is being too cautious, isn’t this what you brought him here for, you have a well-defined role: You furrow your brow in silence for a moment, look up, say If you will it, it is no dream, put the quarterback in, win the wild card, win the Super Bowl, get your name in the history books as the owner who Believed. 

The Magic of Football logic is evident in the real nadirs of the past two and a half decades: bringing the Super Bowl–winning coach out of his comfortable retirement, drafting the Heisman-nominated Ohio State quarterback instead of the badly needed offensive tackles because he was a “good kid” when he was at Bullis with your own children.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t operate on the terms of the Magic of Football. Or maybe it does, but only in negative—Snyder has suffered under some kind of curse. There was something eerie and malign at work in Alex Smith’s compound leg fracture, thirty-three years to the day after Joe Theismann suffered a similar career-ending leg injury. Dwayne Haskins, the “good kid” from Bullis, got cut from the team for disciplinary problems; he was looking at a second season as a backup for the ailing Pittsburgh Steelers when he was run over by a dump truck. He was high on ketamine.

But the single-minded dedication to a vision of how the world ought to work, rather than how it does work, made Snyder a kind of courageous figure. Despite heavy pressure from the league and bien pensants, he refused to change the Redskins’ name. He took the fight to the people: He asked whether Native Americans, the supposedly wronged group, found the name offensive. 

The Washington Post duly conducted polls and, to the surprise of that publication’s writers and subscribers, he was vindicatedtwice. It was only during the Summer of Floyd, when so many disparate and unrelated causes were rolled into a yawning void of unreason and upheaval, that the NFL stopped carrying Redskins merchandise in their stores; Snyder, at last, came to heel.

In a 2002 profile with the Post, Snyder said, “I’m still a kid … I’m just a kid.” He was not yet 40 when he said that; maybe things have changed. I suspect not, though. The man who dropped out of college to build a fortune and buy his hometown football team will realize a roughly seven-fold return on his 1999 investment. An unhappy ending, but there’s something to soften the blow: That hometown football team, in a substantial sense, no longer exists—who are the Commanders? But $6 billion is a lot of money for an aging Wunderkind living across the Atlantic

Maybe he’ll buy a soccer team.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Haskins as a "Heisman-winning Ohio State quarterback." In fact, Haskins was only a nominee for the Heisman Memorial Trophy.


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