Can accidentally mixing up holiday wishes be awkward and also revealing? If so, Dan Snyder may have pulled it off last week.
Standing behind the lectern at his NFL team’s facility in Ashburn, he wished those in attendance a “Happy Thanksgiving” to start new head coach Ron Rivera’s introductory press conference. It was Jan. 2.
“What the Redskins have needed is a culture change,” Snyder said, a not-so-veiled shot at former team president Bruce Allen, who was fired earlier that week after a decade on the job.
Without Allen to act as the organization’s mouthpiece, that task fell on the franchise’s actual boss to reassert some semblance of a public presence, even if it was just a perfunctory job like introducing a new coach.
“I think that may have been the first time in an actual [press conference] where I heard him speak in front of me,” says The Athletic’s Ben Standig, who has covered the team regularly since 2015. “It was definitely surreal.”
Surreal, but frustratingly brief. Snyder took all of 96 seconds to list Rivera’s career bonafides and usher in a(nother) new era for Washington football. And he appeared to be in no mood to reflect on a 3-13 campaign that saw an in-season coaching change, a high-profile holdout, a half-filled FedExField, and a grassroots effort by disgruntled fans to have his team president ousted.
“On the one hand it was, ‘Okay, he finally said something,’” says Standig, “On the other hand, we’re still waiting for him to answer questions about the team that he owns.”
The answers never came. Snyder ceded the stage to Rivera without fielding questions.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone if that’s the last time the embattled 55-year-old owner is heard from for a good while. But it shouldn’t be. Gaffes aside, the all-too-quick remarks were a missed opportunity for Snyder to fulsomely address a fanbase that deserves clarity on the franchise’s new direction.
It already sounds like he’s not open to the idea.
“One thing that’s very, very important we’re going to have one voice, and only one voice alone,” Snyder said. “And that’s the coach’s.”
Of course, he may have meant that as a way of saying Rivera has ultimate authority inside the walls of Ashburn. And there’s no reason to doubt that, if allowed to see it through, the new coach will bring more competence to the football operation. That’s a start.
But the culture change Snyder seeks should go beyond adding new faces to the coaching staff and front office, a move this franchise has tried a few times.
At some point, there should also be an honest examination about why the team’s relationship with the city has soured beyond on-field failure. That begins with a personal reckoning for Snyder, who may have finally received the message from fans this season that something about his organization is broken. He can show the burgundy and gold faithful that he “gets it” by hanging back and letting Rivera run the show during the rebuild. In the interim, Snyder stands to gain some goodwill if he embraces a more transparent public posture.
Given what is known about Snyder, it seems like an unrealistic expectation.
That said, he doesn’t have to do a full pivot toward the always-accessible style that Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis has adopted has adopted. There’s no reason to think Snyder would want anything to do with a Twitter account or a personal blog, anyway. But there shouldn’t be a zero-sum choice between high-level exposure and complete radio silence. There’s a lane between those extremes that most pro sports owners occupy. Snyder can too with some effort.
Even a modicum of visibility, and some accountability, is the least fans should expect from someone who owns something many feel is akin to a public trust—even if it’s ultimately a business.
“If the owner were just able to come out and articulate some thoughts and hopefully do it in a way that seems credible … I think people would get excited by that,” Standig says. “[Fans could say], ‘This is the guy in charge. I want to believe, and he’s telling me I can.’ That works for some people.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Snyder flirted with image rehabilitation. The previous clean-slate moment for the team was at the start of last decade, when Allen and coach Mike Shanahan were billed as the adults in the room that would allow Snyder to take a step back from meddling. Even then, he shared his discomfort with attention.
“I’m shy with cameras. I’m shy with media,” Snyder said, on camera, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in a 2010 E:60 feature about his ownership tenure and the lessons he’d learned to that point. When asked why, he responded: “I don’t know, because I’ve been beaten up so much.”
The criticism only got more intense the following decade. That’ll happen when a team has a 62-97-1 record in the 2010s—good for the NFL’s fourth-worst mark—to go along with a long list of public relations mishaps. As each episode occurred, it felt like Snyder was further and further from sight, as it was his lieutenants who were usually sent out to explain the incident of the moment.
Prior to last week, Snyder made few public comments. There were occasional one-on-one sit downs with TV reporters. There was his infamously defiant defense of the team’s dictionary-defined racial slur nickname.
And the closest thing he may have had to a “state of the franchise” forum with assembled media was in 2012, which was an impromptu post-practice scrum at training camp. Afterward, the reporter who initiated the fairly benign session was scolded by a team official for doing so.
And in between those rare moments of transparency, there many more denied interview requests.
“He doesn’t want to ever talk I think in part because he doesn’t feel comfortable in those spots,” Standig says. “He feels so gun shy [from] the people in the media or others who criticize him, and he just gave up.”
The net result of it all is an owner reviled by a generation of would-be supporters, and a city with which he’s having trouble with which he’s having trouble securing a new stadium deal. Millennial-aged sports fans in the D.C. area, both natives and transplants, have little emotional connection to the pre-Snyder glory days. To them, this franchise isn’t the one that won Super Bowls in the 1980s and early 1990s; it’s merely known as that team Dan Snyder owns. So most of the positive sports memories for younger fans in town have recently been shaped by championship runs from the Capitals, Nationals, and Mystics.
Snyder is likely acutely aware of all of this. And he most certainly wants his team to join the District of Champions wave to regain the city’s love. Maybe he’s resigned to the fact that, after 20 years of dysfunction, his best chance at redemption is to stay behind the scenes and hope to get residual appreciation if the organization starts winning.
It’s clear there are certain things he won’t budge on. He’s not selling the team. He’s not changing the name. Those may very well be deal breakers for a decent chunk of potential fans this franchise needs to court in the future.
But if Snyder can step outside his comfort zone and connect to a wounded fanbase that wants to care, he might cultivate renewed support as another rebuild begins.
Photo by All-Pro Reels/Joe Glorioso, used under the Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.