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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dan Snyder Doesn't Get It

From: The Economist

Hail to the City Paper
Feb 11th 2011, 14:15 by J.F. | ATLANTA
daniel snyderLET'S start with some disclosure: I grew up in Washington, DC in the 1980s. DC has always been the strangest American city; in fact, it has never really been much of a city, more an inchoate layering of different cities—the transient political class (elected officials, their staffs) and the permanent political class (remoras attached to the former grouping: lobbyists, lawyers, thinktankers, etc), neither of which had much in the way of civic roots or involvement; the city's black elite and white elite, a multiethnic suburbia whose members came to work in the city but otherwise had nothing to do with it, and, of course, a vast black underclass. I realise that these same groupings exist in other places, but for a variety of reasons extraneous to this post they never really cohered together in DC.

The only thing that united the city was the Redskins. Rich white Washingtonians and poor black ones, Democrats and Republicans, people who voted for Marion Barry and people who couldn't stand him: we all sat in the same rickety stands at RFK to cheer the same team while the stadium swayed. If the 1980s were DC's lowpoint (and, man, were they ever), they were the Redskins' high point. The team not only won consistently, but they managed to be both classy (I'm thinking here of Art Monk, whose jersey I still sport most Sundays, George Starke and Russ Grimm—names that probably mean little or nothing to 98% of the people reading these sentences but to those of my age and background connote giants) and colourful (the mohawked Dexter Manley, the Hogs and of course John Riggins, a massive, lumbering running back who at a black-tie dinner told Justice O'Connor to "loosen up, Sandy baby. You're too tight," and then promptly fell asleep under the table during a speech from then Vice-President George H.W. Bush).

All of which is by way of saying that Daniel Snyder (pictured) does not just own a football team; he stewards what may be Washington, DC's only real civic institution. In both of those roles he has been a consistent failure, as Dave McKenna's article in the Washington City Paper last November detailed. Mr Snyder, unsurprisingly, disliked the article. Rather than shaking it off, or writing a response, however, he decided to sue the paper. He is suing for $2m in New York, not Washington; and he announced his suit not by contacting the paper's editor (another disclosure: Michael Schaffer, who edits the City Paper, is an old friend and someone I respect a great deal, but I would be writing this even if he weren't), but by threatening the investment company that controls the media company that owns the paper. "We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours," threatened a letter from David Donvan, the Redskins' general counsel. "Indeed, the cost of the litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper." The letter also claims a number of Mr McKenna's claims are false; the newspaper is standing by them. It also accuses the paper of "demeaning" his wife's role as a "national spokesperson on breast-cancer awareness". In fact, the article makes no mention of breast cancer and refers to his wife only twice, regarding her claim that her husband has "grown and evolved". Perhaps most egregiously, Mr Donovan's letter accuses the City Paper of trafficking in "anti-Semitic caricature" for the illustration accompanying the article, which was a picture of Mr Snyder with devil's horns and a beard scribbled on.

To be sure, the first amendment is no defence against making libellous statements. But it is, and should be, a defence against bullying, thuggish threats of litigation like this. To its credit, the paper is standing firm. It has established a legal-defence fund that raised $18,000 in five days, and its parent company has retained Floyd Abrams. It is a mystery what Mr Snyder thought he could get by filing such a suit. Judges tend to take a dim view of using lawsuits to intimidate, especially when doing so vitiates first amendment principles. And as Mr Schaffer writes, "Every journalist dreams of someday being in the middle of one of those epic, David-and-Goliath, right-versus-wrong First Amendment showdowns." But then, it's a mystery what Mr Snyder thought he'd get by signing 34-year-old Donovan McNabb to a five-year, $78m contract extension two weeks after they benched him.

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