Before defending Daniel Snyder, it is necessary to concede a point: The Washington Redskins' owner is a repugnant twerp. It would be unspeakably satisfying to watch the three field-goal kickers he's fired this season take turns sending him through the uprights.
During the last six months, Snyder has perpetrated a series of atrocities. At the expense of building an adequate offensive line and special teams, he recruited and then overpaid Geritol-popping superstars like cornerback Deion Sanders. He canned head coach Norv Turner with three weeks left in the season and a playoff berth potentially hanging in the balance. Thanks to his management, the Redskins have squandered considerable talent, played shambolically, and will finish in the center of the mediocre NFC East.
But none of this should be held against the man. As owner, Snyder not only has a right to act like a repugnant twerp, he has an obligation to fans to act like a repugnant twerp. Although he has been treated as a war criminal by the NFL's commentariat, Snyder's worst offense has been an urgent desire to win. His decisions can be retrospectively deemed chowderheaded, but they were worthy, necessary gambles—and in the best tradition of the NFL owner.
Snyder could not have constructed an immediate contender any other way. When he bought the Skins in 1999, he inherited a franchise devoid of youthful talent. The team didn't even have many aging stars. To quickly rebuild, he took an entirely reasonable, time-tested approach: He recruited the best available free agents. It is true that the stars he signed—Sanders, Irving Fryar, Bruce Smith, and Mark Carrier—didn't have many seasons left in their wizened bodies. But without these expensive, short-term investments, the Redskins would have had to wait years to make the playoffs.
If anything, Snyder's greatest weakness this season has been his patience. Because Snyder built his squad to win a Super Bowl this season, he couldn't afford to be forgiving. Yet he handed out second chances to players and coaches like seat cushions on Fan Appreciation Day. For weeks, he refrained from firing special-teams coach LeCharls McDaniel, despite his squad's dismal performance. And he kept staying the execution of Turner, a bland technocrat, while the team dropped game after game to the league's biggest losers. Running one of the most expensive franchise in the history of sport as a sputtering jalopy was an unforgivable offense. Turner should have been snuffed before the season began.
The Redskins' implosion has rather predictably precipitated an outbreak of Schadenfreude. Eminencies throughout the league have stepped forward to spank Snyder. Fox Sports analyst Cris Collinsworth pronounced him "Mini-Me playing fantasy football." Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell denounced him for running roughshod over the wholesome values of the game. And when Snyder fired Turner, John Madden and a host of other pundits wagged their fingers at Snyder, chiding him for impatience.
The NFL isn't normally known for this sort of high-mindedness. There's only one explanation for their sanctimony: They are snobs. The NFL views Snyder as an arriviste flaunting his new McMansion. To be sure, Snyder has contributed to this image himself. Almost every week, Washington Post photographers capture Snyder seated in a director's chair on the practice field sidelines puffing an enormous stogie. During games, the cameras fix on Snyder spastically jumping up and down in the owner's box. When Snyder feels disappointment, he does tend to express himself with Gambino tact.
But the NFL owners have no business ganging up on Snyder for monomania. From George Halas onward, the NFL has a proud tradition of owners dirtying themselves in management. In Halas' case, he actually handed himself the whistle and coached the Bears. Or to take the more obvious example, Snyder is far less vain than Jack Kent Cooke, the owner who for decades ran the Skins as a monument to himself. Cooke not only used the team to curate a collection of friendships with powerful Washingtonians, he built an antiseptic suburban stadium and named it after himself.
And Snyder is clearly no more intrusive an owner than his colleagues. The Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, the most glaring case, sits on the sidelines, whispering into players' ears. In this week's game against the Skins, he actually stormed onto the field to scream at a referee. And while Snyder canned Turner after six-plus lousy seasons, Jones fired legendary coach Jimmy Johnson immediately after he won two Super Bowls.
But the NFL prefers to promote the myth of the benevolent owner. An older guard of management—especially Modell, the Giants' Wellington Mara, and the Rooney family in Pittsburgh—like to figure themselves small businessmen. They are loyal friends of the working man who treasure community. Good Rotarians. Yet anyone who has witnessed any of the labor strife that afflicted the league in the '80s knows that this stance is a sham. And some of these same tradition-minded owners have moved their franchises in a pout when they have been unable to extort fancy new stadiums from cash-strapped cities.
But fans and media happily buy the owners' spin. Sports is the lone area of American life that everyone seems to agree should be cordoned off from the free market, with salary caps and exemption from antitrust laws. Owners aren't supposed to be too entrepreneurial. When they try hard to recruit talent, they are considered vulgar. When they hike ticket prices, they are damned as crass. The myth of the kindly owner is a beautiful myth, but it's also a destructive one. Just ask the fans of the Cincinnati Bengals, where the team is run by Mike Brown—a first-rate mensch. He's genuinely loyal, patient, and probably considers Snyder abhorrent, and his team has a record of 3-12.