Daniel Snyder appears to be in the twilight of his tenure as the owner of the Washington Commanders, but it’s still unknown if the NFL will reveal investigative findings into his alleged misconduct.
Snyder bought a controlling stake in the team in 1999 for $800 million and in 2021 paid roughly $900 million for shares owned by three limited partners, and he’s currently weighing bids worth $6 billion from Josh Harris and Steve Apostolopoulos, with other possible buyers in the mix. Under the NFL’s constitution, a sale would require the support of three-quarters of owners (at least 24 of the 31 other teams).
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If all proceeds smoothly, Snyder could be a former NFL team owner by this summer. But the league’s Snyder probe continues, with no known end in sight.
In February 2022, the NFL retained former SEC chairperson Mary Jo White to investigate allegations brought by Tiffani Mattingly Johnston, a former Washington marketing manager and cheerleader. Johnson claims that Snyder placed his hand on her thigh during a dinner and committed other inappropriate, if not unlawful, acts. Snyder has consistently denied allegations but has reportedly refused to be interviewed by White.
At the time of White’s appointment, The Washington Post and other media reported the league expected to publicly share the findings. With anticipation building for Snyder to sell, several influential figures have advocated for disclosure.
Last week, attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz—who together have represented more than 40 former Commanders employees in claims against the team—argued it would be a “travesty of justice” if Snyder can sell the team for a record-breaking figure “without full accountability for his misconduct.” Banks and Katz demand “an assurance from the NFL” that White’s report “will be released without further delay.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, meanwhile, told journalists at last week’s NFL owners meeting he wants the findings released. When asked why, Jones said, “Because I know everything in the report.”
In a subsequent news conference, commissioner Roger Goodell suggested that Jones was mistaken. Goodell said it was “impossible” for an owner to know what’s in the report since the investigation is ongoing. Goodell further stressed that only investigators—not owners or league officials—have access. “The only person I know that knows anything about the investigation is Mary Jo White and her counterparts,” Goodell asserted. “I don’t know any of those things.”
The league, which is not obligated to release the eventual report, has reasons to shield much of it.
As a starting point, the NFL and its teams are private businesses; they control how and when their documents and data are shared. Should White’s report become subject to litigation, the league would have legal arguments to keep it confidential. Most crucially, reports from NFL investigations may contain trade secrets and other protected information that can justify keeping it private.
Also, though the NFL has consistently described the investigation as independent, White—a partner at Debevoise and Plimpton, who previously served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York—is being paid by the league. Her report will be a document produced by NFL-retained attorneys, and its contents will be protected by attorney-client privilege and possibly also the work-product doctrine, which shields materials obtained by attorneys in investigations if in anticipation of litigation or trial.
The past provides some potential guidance. The NFL has a mixed record when it comes to releasing investigative reports. In controversies involving allegations of competition-related misconduct, the league has been relatively forthcoming. This was apparent in the Bountygate and Deflategate controversies, where materials were released containing details, timelines and methods of investigation. Both players and staff were accused by name, too.
But in controversies involving owner misconduct, the league has been more guarded. This is a result of several factors, including contractual constraints imposed by nondisclosure agreements, a desire to insulate owners from embarrassment and a legal strategy to not unwittingly share materials that could be used in lawsuits against the league or teams.
White is no stranger to the league’s preferred handling of investigations. Five years ago, she led an investigation into then-Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. A Sports Illustrated story had accused Richardson of sexual harassment and inappropriate physical contact with female employees. He also allegedly used a racial slur. White’s probe corroborated the accusations, but her report wasn’t published. Instead, the league issued what The New York Times termed “a concise news release that did not reveal details of the investigation’s findings.”
In 2021, the NFL announced it was fining the Commanders $10 million and that Snyder’s wife, co-CEO Tanya Snyder, would “assume responsibilities for all day-to-day team operations and represent the club at all league meetings and other league activities for at least the next several months.” The move followed an investigation, led by attorney Beth Wilkinson, into allegations of a hostile workplace environment. But details were relatively brief and generalized. The Washington Post reported that the NFL and Snyder had agreed to not release information.
Last year, White oversaw an investigation into the Miami Dolphins over allegations of tampering and tanking that culminated in a league statement sharing some details of her findings. The statement was critical of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, whom the league portrayed as rooting for his team to lose and who was accordingly suspended and fined.
Another factor for the league to weigh? Its relationship with Snyder will continue for some time after he sells.
The Commanders are under criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia for possible fraudulent practices, and the team is being sued by the District of Columbia for alleged harms to consumers. Litigation stemming from women who have accused Commanders executives of misconduct, and who in some cases have negotiated settlements and NDAs, could remain active for some time. The league could be portrayed as partially responsible for that misconduct. To the extent White’s probe produces evidence and witness statements, the NFL might want to limit its disclosure.
Snyder’s exit from the NFL seems inevitable at this point, but it will come with strings attached.
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