Donald Sterling’s imaginary “Worst American Professional Sports Owner” championship belt always blended perfectly with his all-black outfits and protruding belly. He inherited the title from outgoing Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien in 1983, then defended that WAPSO belt more times than Ric Flair defended the NWA belt. Sure, Sterling would occasionally get pinned by the likes of George Shinn, Marge Schott, John Spano and Al Davis, just like Flair got pinned by Kerry Von Erich and Sting. But the Notorious DTS never lost his belt for too long.
His WAPSO reign peaked with Sports Illustrated’s 2000 cover story that named the Clippers “The Worst Franchise in Sports History.”1 For the rest of the decade, Sterling’s team lived up to that lofty dishonor. Clippers fans thought they were never getting rid of him. They thought he might live to 125. Like a vampire or a turtle. Their luck flipped with 2009’s Blake Griffin lottery, then again with 2011’s Chris Paul trade veto. Doc Rivers showed up. V. Stiviano started recording stuff. TMZ started sniffing around. Sterling became a public pariah on par with O.J. Simpson and gluten. And before we knew it, the WAPSO title was vacant. Clippers fans were finally free.2
I would have given you the link to the actual story, but SI has absolutely destroyed the once-great SI Vault for reasons that remain unclear.
Well, except for the perpetually disorienting sight of Sterling’s wife, Shelly, who continues to sit courtside like nothing ever happened.
So that’s the good news for D.C. football fans. There is hope. Sure, it might take 30-35 years, and you might break your own jaw from punching yourself in the face. But abominable sports owners can’t own teams forever. Maybe they’ll break the law, commit a catastrophic PR blunder, blow their money or drop dead. Maybe they’ll get humiliated and sell. Maybe they’ll lose their franchise because their surgically enhanced mistress/assistant surreptitiously recorded them saying insane things for 930 straight hours. But at some point, it’s ending.
The bad news for D.C. football fans? Daniel Snyder inherited Sterling’s WAPSO belt and mounted an unexpectedly spirited title defense. It’s difficult to separate Snyder’s inherent unlikability from everything else that’s happening here. He carries himself like the sneaky kid in every boarding school drama who pretends to be buddies with everyone else, only when the gang gets in trouble, he’s the first person to flip. (Think Cameron in Dead Poets Society or Jack Wheeler in Outside Providence.) But there have been plenty of unlikable owners; when you’re unlikable AND you’re destroying a beloved franchise, that’s different.
I happen to know a few Washington fans, including my buddy House, and their collective dread for the future matches any Sterling-era Clippers fan. The crucial difference: Clippers fans had always been trapped in coach in a middle seat; they never knew what first class felt like. The Washington Professional Football Team used to give its fans a first-class football experience. That franchise mattered. It won multiple Super Bowls. It had a famous stadium and famous coaches and famous stars. It resonated more in the extended D.C. area than every other pro team combined.
Over the past 10 years, Snyder’s football team transformed into the black sheep of the D.C. sports scene and a general laughingstock. Washington’s football team was fine until Daniel Snyder showed up. House derisively calls them “the Deadskins” these days. And he means it.
If you asked me in 1999 to name the five most important NFL franchises, I would have defined “important” by some admittedly murky formula that included long-term success, a storied history, the recognizability of its uniform/logo/name, the breadth/passion/support of a multi-generation fan base and its weight/power/influence compared to the other local teams in its city. And I would have given the following answer: Green Bay, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington and the New York Giants.3
Washington still ranked highly in 2002, when I wrote a piece about visiting RFK with the Hogs. Even a Boston fan could appreciate that stuff.
Mention that list to a Washington fan 15 years later and you can almost see the blood leaving their body. For the first time in franchise history, they’re thinking entirely in question marks. What do we do? How much longer? How do we stop this? When will this end? In general, fans are loyal as hell. We root for laundry and we know it — we don’t care. It’s part of our DNA. We’re always coming back. It’s just one of the things that makes human beings so freaking strange. We’ll divorce people before we divorce our favorite teams.
But an irredeemable owner? That’s the only person who can nudge a fan base to a collective breaking point. When you support a pro team with an unspeakably awful owner, at some point you take a step back, do the math and mutter things like, “I was 19 when he bought the team, I’m 34 right now, and I’m gonna be 54 in 2034 — AND WE ARE STILL GOING TO SUCK BECAUSE THIS GUY F------ SUCKS AND HE’S NEVER LEAVING AND WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO?”
Anytime a sports franchise goes into an unexpected death spiral, I start getting emails from that team’s traumatized fans, as well as everyone else fascinated by such an obviously depressing situation. In general, those emails veer toward one of six mailbag angles.
MAILBAG ANGLE NO. 1: The Laundry List of Miserable Moments Just to Make Sure That I’m Paying Attention
Since Snyder joined the NFL in May 1999, the D.C. football team has two playoff wins, four playoff appearances and four finishes over .500: 1999 (10-6), 2005 (10-6), 2007 (9-7) and 2012 (10-6). During that 16-season stretch, Snyder employed a whopping eight head coaches (only one fewer than the rest of the NFC East combined over that period) and started 16 different quarterbacks. His career record is 107-146, which will probably become the league’s fourth-worst record since 1999 by the end of December. Also, he chopped down a bunch of trees on the Potomac, ruined a park ranger’s career and earned himself the nickname “Chainsaw Dan.” And did lots and lots of other unlikable stuff. By November 2010, Snyder had generated so many football and non-football stories ranging from “incredibly misguided” to “indefensible” to “inexplicably hateful” to “almost definitely illegal” to “just plain unbelievable” that Dave McKenna documented them in an A-to-Z encyclopedic guide that’s longer than your average Simmons column.
Did Snyder sue McKenna’s paper? Of course he did! Was the lawsuit dropped? Of course it was! The man has accumulated four more years of crazy craziness since then.4 No, you don’t need to send me that laundry list of Snyder horrors anymore. And yes, I am always paying attention when the WAPSO belt is in play.
Can’t someone update the A-to-Z guide with a 2010-14 addendum???
MAILBAG ANGLE NO. 2: Innocent Bystanders Either Delighting in the Schadenfreude or Feeling Weirdly Terrible for What’s Happening
Two solid email examples here …
Michael W. in Bethesda: “As a non-Skins fan living outside DC, I hope Snyder never sells. I love turning on the radio every monday morning and listening to everyone talk about how embarrassing the team is, and how terribly they lost, all while managing to blame anything and everything except the Snyder himself (on a radio station that, surprise, SNYDER OWNS HIMSELF!). Nothing makes the start of my week better than the unintentional comedy that is the Washington Native American Slurs.”
Quick tangent: I’m running that same schadenfreude playbook with the 2014-15 Train Wreck Lakers. I watch their 24-hour TV channel and listen to local sports radio more than usual, just because it’s so delightful (at least for me) to hear anyone discuss my least-favorite NBA team that hopelessly. Shit, I flew back to Boston with my daughter partly to attend the annual Lakers-at-Celtics game just in case it became a Boston blowout. (And it was!) Lakers fans don’t take this personally because, if the roles were reversed, they’d be doing the same. Delighting in the misfortune of a bitter rival isn’t bad karma, it’s just what fans do. As for the flip side …
Bob Brickeen in Memphis: “My guilty pleasure: when St Louis sports teams win big games, I like going to newspaper sites for the losing teams to read bitter fan comments. This week, I went to the Washington Post and read several stories about the Rams blowing out the Skins. Although there were a few whiners complaining about Fisher’s pregame trolling and the usual ‘get rid of the coach’ posts, for the most part I started feeling really sorry for DC fans. Snyder has stolen their joy. Most comments were from fans remembering the glory days of the Hogs who now find themselves in constant pain as their team gets worse and worse. The only thing left for Redskins fans is a mercy killing. Remove that team, send it to LA and let those poor people get on with their lives.”
Now that’s a bummer. Poor Bob wanted to feed his weekly hate-read ritual and stumbled into something much darker — empathy. But the words “Snyder has stolen their joy” say it all. Hold on, it’s about to get darker.
MAILBAG ANGLE NO. 3: The Putting-It-Into-Perspective Big-Picture Email That’s Always a Little Too Hyperbolic and Exceedingly Sarcastic, But I Always Enjoy the Hell Out of It
Especially if the reader is standing a little too close to the flame, if you get my drift. Here’s Simon in Alexandria, VA …
“Is the Washington NFL team the worst, most dysfunctional franchise in professional sports? Washington is now a perennial loser. The team’s name is considered by many to be racist. They have a meddling, litigious, unlikable owner, two decades of dysfunction, a clueless PR team and the worst home stadium experience. Even promising moments (RG3 2012) backfire spectacularly (RG3 2014). And there’s no hope because Dan Snyder is only 50 and will never sell. If the NFL wasn’t already a morally dubious venture, the embarrassment of following the Washington team has pushed me over the edge. I’m officially an NFL widower. And I feel so much better; it’s amazing how many errands and how much yard work you can do with a full Sunday. The Washington NFL Franchise is the suckiest franchise in professional sports. Thank God I can still get by watching crushing playoff collapses by the Nats and Caps!”
That one nailed a variety of checkmarks: mild hyperbole (words like “worst” and “suckiest”), some slight homerism (by rule, shouldn’t the Raiders be mentioned in any “worst/most dysfunctional” discussion?), the mini laundry list of tragedies (always a staple), the surprising reveal in the middle (he buried the lede — he actually made himself an NFL widower!), the obligatory poison arrow at someone (calling the NFL “morally dubious,” which I thoroughly enjoyed) and a terrific sarcastic closer that would have made Joe House proud.
The most poignant line in that email: “There’s no hope because Dan Snyder is only 50 and will never sell.” Hold that thought.
MAILBAG ANGLE NO. 4: The Intentional Narrative Flip As a Creative Device
I don’t get enough of these. Christopher from Crystal City made it short and sweet …
“Simmons — everyone here is ripping Chainsaw Dan as you probably know from House. What would a short defense of Chainsaw Dan look like? Can a short defense of Chainsaw Dan even be possible? What would such a defense look like?”
Excellent! I like this game because Sterling’s quickie defense would have looked like this:
• At least he comes to the home games.
(And we’re done!)
You could stretch a quickie Snyder defense to 12 parts if you wanted. By the way, I had to take a shower before I wrote the next 12 paragraphs. Remember to say, “Say what you want about Snyder, but … ” before each of them.
Say what you want about Snyder, but …
1. At least he grew up in Maryland and at least he’s a real fan of the team.
2. At least he spends money! Sure, he spends it stupidly, but wouldn’t you rather have a lavishly incompetent owner than a cheapskate owner? You can learn to be smarter. You can’t learn NOT to be cheap.
3. Even though he owns the team radio station, and maybe it feels like something that would happen in Russia, it’s not like they sing his praises 24/7, right? Daniel Snyder kinda sorta almost supports free speech!
4. How bad can Snyder be if none of his fired employees ever says anything bad about him? Wait, they probably all signed a nondisclosure agreement? (Thinking.) Still, Daniel Snyder’s fired employees never say anything bad about him!
5. He’s a smart businessman. He didn’t inherit his NFL team from his dad like so many other owner buffoons. Do you know who became the youngest CEO in the New York Stock Exchange back in 1996? Daniel Marc Snyder, that’s who. He didn’t inherit his money — he made his money.
6. Unlike many owners, he’s not afraid to take big swings. The RG3 trade? Haynesworth? Big money for Gibbs and Shanahan? DANIEL SNYDER TAKES BIG SWINGS!
7. We all know Shanahan ruined Griffin — not Snyder. It’s Shanahan’s fault that Griffin ripped up his knee.
8. He’s the only guy crazy enough to defend the team’s name — they’re the Redskins, that’s their name, and that’s who they are. A football team with a name that’s a slur that offends Native Americans, but still. That’s who they are!
9. He’s one of Roger Goodell’s favorite owners — and as we’ve learned unequivocally over the years, Roger Goodell’s buddies get treated more favorably than other owners. Advantage, Washington!
10. His company owns the Johnny Rockets franchise. That means Daniel Snyder likes cheeseburgers and milkshakes — what’s more American than that?
11. At least he admits his mistakes. Everyone keeps pointing to the eight coaches he’s had — why can’t that be a positive? Some owners stick with the wrong coach for an extra year or two to save money. Not Snyder. DANIEL SNYDER CLEANS UP HIS OWN MESS!
12. At least he comes to the home games.
(Hold on, I need to take another shower. I’ll be right back.)
MAILBAG ANGLE NO. 5: Loyal Fans Who Were Pushed Over the Edge and Legitimately Need Counsel
Some reader emails make me wonder if I have a higher calling: the Sports Whisperer. Am I the Cesar Millan for emotionally destroyed sports fans? Here’s a good example from Robert in Roanoke, VA …
“The ‘Skins won their three Super Bowls when I was 4, 9, and 13 years old. Success during your childhood makes most people pretty loyal. But I’m 36 now — I can’t go on rooting for a team led by the totally unlikable Danny Boy, with a racist mascot (it’s insensitive at minimum) and two decades of losing and incompetence. I want out. But I’m very conflicted on becoming a ‘fan’ of another team. Do I have to become an NFL widower until Chainsaw Dan sells the team, which might be after I’m dead? Are there rules and regulations in place somewhere that I can follow to switch allegiances to another team? Should I become an NFL agnostic and just root for my college alma mater instead? This is a job for 2006 Bill Simmons, I know, but maybe you could help out anyway?”
What a backhanded compliment! It was actually a job for 2002 Bill Simmons in my “20 Rules for Being a True Fan” column, in which I laid out a series of rules for fan behavior. It’s a funny reread because I eventually broke some of these rules — most flagrantly, the concept of a “five-year grace period” (for instance, I’m furious at the 2013 MLB champs for botching the Jon Lester thing — #smearcampaign) and “Just because you supported a team that won a championship, it doesn’t give you the right to turn into a pompous, insufferable schmuck” (whoops). I stand by much of what I wrote about fan-team divorces, but don’t feel nearly as strongly about this part:
The owner of your favorite team treated his fans so egregiously over the years that you couldn’t take it anymore — you would rather not follow them at all than support a franchise with this owner in charge. Just for the record, I reached this point with the Boston Bruins about six years ago. When it happens, you have two options: You can either renounce that team and pick someone else, or you can pretend they’re dead, like you’re a grieving widow. That’s what I do. I’m an NHL widow. I don’t even want to date another team.
The “pick someone else” part just doesn’t work. I drifted back to the Bruins after the strike season, although it has never really been the same. In 2011, I bought Kings season tickets just because I liked watching hockey — three-plus seasons and two Cups later, both of my kids absolutely LOVE the Kings. When you’re a parent, you root for anything that makes your kids happy. So, yeah, I rooted for the Kings as long as they weren’t playing the Bruins. Everything peaked when the three of us were sitting together, right behind the winning net, when Alec Martinez scored his double-OT Cup clincher. Just an unbelievable parent-kid bonding experience; I’ve never seen them happier.
Did I inadvertently become a sports bigamist? Did I waver when the Bruins came to L.A. to play the Kings last week? Please. I could never, ever root against a Boston team. DNA is DNA. And it turned out to be a fun night — my kids and I taunted each other for three periods, the Kings won by two goals, my kids taunted me some more, and then I told them to fuck off, left them in Staples Center and drove home alone.5
I didn’t really do that.
Here’s why I bring this up: It’s nearly impossible to just switch teams. Again, your DNA is your DNA. But divorcing them and never remarrying? That’s more doable. Football is the easiest “divorce sport” — become an NFL widow, step up your gambling and fantasy football, then you have multiple “favorite” teams and players every weekend. You couldn’t do that with any other sport. You don’t necessarily need a favorite NFL team.
Then again, if you played it that way, you’d miss out on stuff that transcends winning and losing. Loving a pro sports team isn’t just about watching games, going to the ballpark or stadium, wearing the hats and jerseys and having something to do. It’s about history, generations, connections, family, friends, loyalty and memories. It’s about euphoria and pain and everything in between. It’s about truly caring about something. It’s about being a small part of something that’s greater than you. You don’t just walk away from that stuff without putting real thought into it.
Snyder pushed many Washington football fans to that specific point; maybe that’s not a unique achievement. But reaching Mailbag Angle No. 6? Now THAT is an achievement.
MAILBAG ANGLE NO. 6: The Suggestion of a Big-Picture Solution That Seems Completely Insane Until I Ask Around and Find Out That, Actually, It’s Not Insane at All
Check out this seemingly ludicrous email from Paul Fischer in Arlington, VA …
“Wouldn’t any rational Skins fan support Dan Snyder moving the team to LA, so long as the NFL promised DC an expansion team within three years — like what happened with the Browns and Ravens in 1996? I would gladly go without an NFL team for three years, then deal with a replacement level expansion squad for another few years, just to get Snyder out. Has there ever been another NFL team so dysfunctional that it causes its fans to daydream about their own team leaving town?”
Great question. I have some personal experience here. Patriots fans hit rock bottom just a few years after the ’85 Bears crushed us. We finished 5-11 in 1989 and 1-15 in 1990, endured a hateful sexual harassment locker-room scandal, traded down in two straight drafts and improbably turned the no. 3 and no. 1 overall picks into Chris Singleton, Ray Agnew, Pat Harlow and Jerome Henderson. The 1990 Pats actually caused me to start gambling just to stay interested in football. (In other words, thank you, 1990 Pats!) At some point, our idiot bankrupt owner (Victor Kiam) sold the team to a St. Louis billionaire (James Orthwein) who claimed he didn’t want to move the Patriots even though everyone knew he did. Me and every other Patriots fan were 95 percent mortified (“They’re trying to steal our team!”) and 5 percent hoping they were stolen away. Let the Patriots leave, blow up Foxboro Stadium, jettison 30-plus years of disappointment and incompetence, and then start over with an expansion team in downtown Boston and pretend the New England Patriots never happened. When Orthwein hired Bill Parcells, that 5 percent vanished. Robert Kraft saved the Patriots and the rest was history.6
Orthwein wanted to move the Patriots to St. Louis, but Kraft wouldn’t let him out of his Foxboro Stadium lease and used that leverage to buy the team. Bob Kraft, Patriots savior! I always forget this.
Anyway, that’s rock bottom. That’s the lowest you can sink — when you say to yourself, “I’d rather have the non-guaranteed chance at a real football franchise than the guaranteed reality of THIS football franchise.” I never realized Washington fans had reached that point until Paul Fischer sent me that email. I mentioned it to my Washington-fan friends. Three years of no team, then three years of expansion hell … would you do that? Everyone said yes. I couldn’t believe it. House even offered to drive everyone to the airport.
Just to be sure, I called the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, an excellent writer with an exceedingly rational feel for the Washington sports scene. He thought 75 percent of Washington fans would take the deal, as long as the new expansion team assumed the old franchise’s history. Steinberg believes that Snyder’s age is the single most important X factor for Washington fans. He’s only 50 years old. What if he never sells? What if he owns the Skins until 2050? What then? What do you do?
“I mean, he might outlive House,” Steinberg said.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of “House Eats,” you know that’s probably a safe bet. But this Snyder saga seems bleaker than bleak. Hopeless, even.
That’s why it makes me so happy to pass along two pieces of advice. First, Snyder’s early business success duped him into thinking he could thrive in football. He was wrong. But he’s a terrible owner for fixable reasons. He spends money, just usually on the wrong things. He takes chances, but they’re usually the wrong chances. He comes off as pompous and stubborn and willfully unlikable, but those traits aren’t exclusive to him. His biggest flaw? He’s absolutely dreadful at hiring people.
You could have made a similarly harsh case for Robert Sarver, who blew Phoenix’s chance to win a title during Steve Nash’s prime with a variety of boners. Sarver was the NBA’s worst non-Sterling owner as recently as two years ago. Guess what happened? Sarver got better at owning the Suns. He spent a little more money and delegated to smarter basketball people. Crazy people can’t get better. Unqualified people can’t get better. But a self-aware, intelligent businessman CAN learn from his mistakes. It happened with Sarver and it has happened with others. For all we know, it could still happen with Snyder. It’s not impossible.
Second, if things don’t improve by the end of this decade, I can’t imagine Snyder keeping his football team. Unlike James Dolan or Hal Steinbrenner or Jimmy Buss, he’s not some bumbling rich kid who inherited his breaks and stubbornly kept his team because he didn’t want to seem like a failure. Unlike Al Davis and Marge Schott, you couldn’t describe him as “increasingly deranged” or “flat-out racist.” Unlike Paul Brown or [fill in 30 other owners], he’s not willfully frugal. Unlike Donald Sterling, he doesn’t lack self-awareness, sanity, decorum or the very basic levels of human compassion and decency.
Snyder grew up in Maryland and achieved a lifelong dream of owning his hometown team. Unless he’s a truly reprehensible human being with no redeeming qualities, I sincerely doubt that Snyder wants to be remembered forever as the local kid who stubbornly destroyed Washington’s once-great football franchise. I think he makes excuses to himself. RG3 would have saved us if Shanahan didn’t ruin him. The NFL screwed me over by penalizing our cap when we overspent during that uncapped year. Haynesworth quit on me after I paid him. That kind of stuff. Right now, he’s probably blaming Jay Gruden (for killing RG3’s confidence) and Bruce Allen (for assembling this lousy roster). Someday, he’s going to look in the mirror. And that will be that.
But that’s in the future. Right now, he’s our undisputed 2014 WAPSO champ. If Washington fans really want to dump Daniel Snyder from their lives, they should continue crushing him on message boards and radio stations. They should start boycotting home games and/or selling their season tickets to fans from visiting teams. They should stop buying team merchandise and throw their support behind the Nats, Caps and Wiz. They should organize “SNYDER MUST GO” rallies before home games.
Or, they could take David Chang’s advice and raise billions to purchase the team themselves. Last December, Chang tweeted that he wanted to raise $6 billion on Kickstarter to make Snyder something of a Godfather offer. That brainstorm briefly became a big deal in Washington — after all, Chang is a local kid and an accomplished restaurateur, as well as a lifelong fan of the now-Deadskins. Chang eventually found out that Kickstarter’s rules wouldn’t allow that plan, but it didn’t stop him from wondering aloud if Washington fans could mobilize.
“If we could get ownership like the Green Bay Packers, think about how awesome that would be?” Chang told the Washington Post. “Dan’s young. He’ll probably own the team for the next 30 [years] at least, unless the fans do something.”
And that’s the thing — the fans could do something. In 2014, it’s never been easier to mobilize socially or financially. Even if $6 billion seems ludicrously high, could someone like Chang slap together an ownership consortium for $2 billion, then use a Kickstarter-like device to raise another billion from frustrated fans? Or could a group of influential Washington fans organize and execute a genuinely savvy boycott plan? What if they crippled Snyder’s profit potential and embarrassed him — legally and peacefully — in a variety of clever ways? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate revenge? What would be better than suffocating Snyder’s wallet, forcing Snyder out and saving football in Washington? They could become the first fan base to turn the tables on a historically atrocious sports owner. It’s sitting there for them.
And if America’s capital can’t figure out how to organically dispose of America’s least redeeming professional sports owner? Then this country is in worse shape than I thought.