While renewed calls for the NFL to oust Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder surfaced this week, the same obstacle remains: 24 owners would have to vote to remove Snyder, a move that has never happened in the league’s 102-year history, and one that would likely spawn antitrust litigation.
The prospective ouster of Snyder, who has been accused of sexual misconduct and negligently supervising Commanders executives, has been a recurring topic in recent years. It drew new headlines on Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in New York, when Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said, “I believe there is merit to removing him as owner of the [Commanders] … there’s consideration that he should be removed.” Irsay’s remark fell short of advocating for Snyder’s removal, but he implied the topic warrants further discussion.
Snyder, however, is a beneficiary of the league’s constitution, a legal document that governs the relationship between owners and the NFL. Although the constitution contemplates removal of an owner, it makes that outcome extremely difficult to achieve. This is intentional. Owners are accorded certainty that they cannot be ousted from their franchises absent extraordinary and, to date, unprecedented circumstances.
If the NFL decided Snyder should be removed, it would need to build a case that he engaged in conduct detrimental and that the appropriate penalty is not a fine or suspension, but expulsion. A written brief and accompanying exhibits would lay out the arguments. The NFL would likely rely on findings by Mary Jo White, the former chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who has investigated Snyder and the Commanders. The league, mindful that it needs to justify expulsion as the suitable penalty, would argue that Snyder’s misconduct has caused more harm than other owners’ misconduct. To that end, the NFL could cite the high-profile Congressional investigation into the team and Snyder, who went to great efforts to avoid cooperating and left Goodell to fill the gap.
Snyder would have 15 days to answer the charge. Goodell would then schedule a special meeting, where he would preside over a quasi-trial or arbitration (unless Goodell is also the complainant, in which case owners would pick someone else to preside). Owners would function as de facto jurors, league officials/attorneys as de facto prosecutors and Snyder the de facto defendant. None of this would be public, though there’s a high likelihood of leaks to journalists.
Snyder would have counsel and can rebut the accusations. Snyder could also insist that even if his conduct warrants punishment, expulsion would be an excessive and unlawful penalty under the NFL’s own policies. There, Snyder could refer to other owners’ misconduct—ESPN recently reported he has hired private investigators to research other owners although Snyder called the report is “false” and “malicious”—and argue that various things they’ve been accused of didn’t lead to an expulsion. The discussion could prove embarrassing for some owners, especially given the high risk of media leaks.
Snyder would want to frame the NFL as acting arbitrarily, in that if it didn’t penalize other owners by expulsion, it’s illogical for the league to punish Snyder that way. Snyder could also argue that he was deprived of adequate notice. He saw other owners not lose their teams despite their misdeeds, so he didn’t know he could lose his team for similar bad acts.
In addition to potential exposure, owners might worry about the precedent being set. Once one owner is expelled, some might worry they could be next. There might not be an obvious limiting principle.
If 24 or more owners nonetheless voted to sustain the charge, the outcome would be “final, conclusive and unappealable” under the league’s constitution. Snyder would then have 120 days to sell the team. If Snyder refuses, the NFL could turn to arbitration to set a price. In a sale, Snyder would be paid the proceeds less legal expenses incurred by the league in charging him.
But Snyder almost certainly wouldn’t accept that outcome. He could seek a restraining order and sue on antitrust grounds. Snyder would argue owners conspired against him to force a sale that was unwarranted under the constitution’s standards. The dispute could remain in the courts for months or years, especially given the financial wherewithal of Snyder and the NFL to engage in long-term litigation.
A far more likely outcome: The NFL continues to live with Snyder, and he eventually sells the team at a time of his choosing.