Dan Snyder made a convincing play for “Least Likable/Respectable Pro Sports Owner” this past week as word emerged of his plans to sue Washington City Paper for defamation. Washington City Paper, an alternative local weekly by the newspaper publisher Creative Loafing, ran a cover story in November entitled “The Cranky Redskin Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder” by longtime writer/columnist Dave McKenna. The piece itself, accompanied by a photo of Snyder with scribbled devil horns and facial hair, summed up the sentiments of the large and growing segment of RFADS (Redskins Fans Against Dan Snyder).
McKenna enumerated Snyder’s long list of “perfidies,” sports-related and otherwise, from 1-10 and A-Z. The laundry list of misdeeds would have been enough to convince even a previously neutral reader of his moral bankruptcy, feckless ineptitude, and shameless avarice. I have included some of the highlights below.
“Emulate Charlie Chan”: What Asian actors trying out for a mascot job at Snyder-run Six Flags were allegedly told during 2008 auditions. After the 2006 firing of Mr. Six, the longtime mascot Snyder deemed “creepy,” the theme park chain’s marketing team hired a Japanese actor to scream “More flags! More fun!” in a vaguely Asian accent in TV commercials. The Chicago chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, which publicized the “Charlie Chan” angle, was among the advocacy groups critical of the effort. The campaign was canceled very shortly after its debut.
Hill, Pat: Down-on-her-luck 73-year-old grandmother—and five-decade Redskins season-ticketholder—who was sued by the Redskins in 2009 because she could not afford to keep up payments on the 10-year, $50,000-plus club seats contract she’d signed.
Pentagon Flag Hat: A Redskins cap sold for profit by Snyder to “commemorate September 11” in time for the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Ads boasted that the $23.99 caps, really just black Redskins hats with a red, white, and blue Pentagon sewn on the side, were “expected to be worn by the Redskins coaches.” No other NFL team put 9/11 commemorative products for sale during the 2006 season, for profit or otherwise. Snyder had previously added a $4 “security surcharge” to the ticket prices soon after the attacks.
McKenna’s appraisal was so ruthless that it attracted the ire of Snyder himself, which was an impressive feat given the hundreds of disparaging items circulating about him at any given moment. The article incensed Snyder to the point that his lawyer David Donovan sent a letter detailing his many grievances with the column to Atalaya Capital Management, the investment firm that owns Creative Loafing and Washington City Paper. His lawyers alleged that the image of him defaced with horns was “anti-Semitic.” They also disputed the majority of McKenna’s piece as “blatantly false, misleading, or simply irrelevant.” Donovan argued that many items “specifically allege that Mr. Snyder personally decided matters that no owner/CEO/Chairman of a multi-national/billion-dollar/public company (respectively) would ever be personally involved in.”
The letter went on to suggest that McKenna’s true motive for writing disparaging articles about Snyder was to “patronize his paper’s new masters, who compete with Snyder’s own private equity fund for investors and investments.” Donovan ended by threatening legal action and warned that “defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of Washington City Paper.”
Naturally, Atalaya Capital Management retained lawyers of its own to answer the threats. The law firm K&L Gates responded on behalf of Atalaya in a letter designed to dissuade Snyder from pursuing ill-conceived legal action. Atalaya’s lawyers reminded him of the protections afforded the media by the First Amendment, insisted that the items mentioned by McKenna were factual and accurate, denied any motive for publishing slander, and rejected any claims of anti-Semitism as baseless and scurrilous.
Washington City Paper’s publisher Amy Austin posted an open letter to readers defending the factual veracity of McKenna’s reporting and his right to continue covering Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins. Austin accused Snyder and his lawyers of using intimidation tactics to discourage the paper from exercising its First Amendment right to comment on public figures and concerns; nevertheless, the paper offered him a chance to respond to McKenna’s articles with columns of his own. City Paper also denied allegations of anti-Semitism in the post “On the Matter of Dan Snyder’s Horns.”
Despite the settled law, public opinion, and facts working against him, Dan Snyder would not be cowed by the likes of Washington City Paper! He made good on his threats to litigate by filing suit against Atalaya in New York on February 2nd. The lawsuit itself read much like a legalistic version of the initial letter sent to Atalaya with the addition of detailed descriptions of his grievances and resulting emotional distress. Needless to say, the document was highly amusing. Enumerating the supposed abuses Snyder suffered allows us fans to respond directly to each accusation.
The suit began by asserting that “a tabloid newspaper is not entitled to employ lies, half-truths, innuendo, and anti-Semitic imagery to smear, malign, defame, and slander a prominent member of the community.” The statement in and of itself is true; however, tabloids defame people every day. Someone direct these lawyers to the nearest grocery checkout lane. The trouble with this argument is that it does not apply to the scenario at hand. Washington City Paper did not use lies, half-truths, innuendo, or anti-Semitic imagery to malign Dan Snyder. It used Dan Snyder’s and his affiliates’ actions to malign Dan Snyder.
Snyder’s lawyers noted that he had never sued a media outlet despite the mass of unflattering things published about him. They wrote “Mr. Snyder, however, will not accept or tolerate blatantly false and/or misleading statements written about him and his wife as supposed fact, especially when such baseless attacks have absolutely nothing to do with the performance of the Team (or his ownership of the Team), but rather are directed at his personal and business reputation.”
Fortunately, Dan and the missus won’t have to accept lies about themselves, because none were printed. I also would like to mention that Dave McKenna never pledged to write exclusively about the Redskins and has every right to discuss the owner’s dealings related and unrelated to the franchise. Snyder should be reminded that coverage of the team and its performance is no more flattering to his reputation than coverage of his other activities.
Next, Snyder’s lawyers brought up allegations of anti-Semitism. “In its cover art, the Washington City Paper depicted the Jewish Mr. Snyder in a blatantly anti-Semitic way, complete with horns, bushy eyebrows and dollar signs.” The accusation of anti-Semitism presents a myriad of problems, the obvious being that the defaced image of Snyder looks like a devil caricature, not like a Jewish caricature (because it is a devil caricature, not a Jewish caricature).
Lawyers for Atalaya addressed the accusation best in the first response to his threats. They wrote, “the cover illustration depicts a photograph of your client crudely defaced with devilish features – complete with clearly-drawn moustache, beard, and unibrow in addition to horns – a classic satire depicted in myriad forms of media. It is curious, at best, that you inexplicably omitted mention of these other salient features of the illustration, which eviscerate any suggestion of anti-Semitism.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, fellas.
The next issue is that the designers and editors of the cover image are Jewish, and therefore unlikely to use images insulting to Jewish people and evocative of the Holocaust. We encounter another problem when we realize that Dan Snyder is using the persecution and suffering of millions of Jewish people as a ploy to stifle unflattering commentary. Translation: Dan Snyder is a jerk.
Finally, even if he interpreted the image as anti-Semitic, he has no right to be offended because he owns the team with the single most racially-offensive name and mascot in all of professional sports. If Native Americans were to retain lawyers (oh wait, they have), those lawyers might write that the team’s logo has burgundy skin, a prominent nose, and braid decorated with feathers, all of which are salient features of prejudicial portraits of Native Americans. Need I remind you, Dan, that these stereotypes reflect the attitude that dehumanized Native Americans and fueled the genocide of millions of their people? The Trail of Tears makes for bad PR, Mr. Snyder.
Snyder’s lawyers used the lawsuit to claim that Atalaya Capital Management had motive to publish unflattering things about him. The document alleged that “since late 2009, Defendants have engaged in an ongoing campaign against Mr. Snyder to smear his business and personal reputation (and, by extension, the business reputation of RedZone Capital and Snyder’s other businesses) through the publication of false and malicious articles in the Washington City Paper.”
The theory presented by his council is a flimsy attempt to explain why Washington City Paper published negative articles about him. The idea that the New York City based investment firm sought to smear its competition’s business practices by planting writers in Washington makes no sense.
Furthermore, Dave McKenna joined the City Paper in the mid-1980s, long before Dan Snyder owned the Washington Redskins, and wrote disparaging columns about Snyder long before Atalaya purchased Creative Loafing in 2009. He’s hardly the transparent pawn of his parent company that Snyder painted him to be.
The lawsuit went on to detail four specific “falsehoods” in McKenna’s article. His lawyers disputed
a. that “Dan Snyder . . . got caught forging names as a telemarketer with Snyder Communications;”
b. that Mr. Snyder caused Agent Orange to be used to destroy trees “protected by the National Park Service” on “federally protected lands,” a matter about which previously published reports had been publicly corrected;
c. that Mr. Snyder bragged that his wealth came from diabetes and cancer victims; and
d. That Snyder was “tossed off” the Six Flags board of directors.
On the subject of Snyder Communications, McKenna used the line about “forging names” as a humorous reference to the company being found guilty of “slamming” (which McKenna goes on to explain) and fined $3.1 million by the state of Florida. In all seriousness, Dan Snyder did not personally forge names; his company broke telecom laws and, as the head of the company, he was responsible for those crimes.
The “Agent Orange” reference also was made in jest. McKenna referred to an incident in which Snyder swayed a National Park official to allow him to clear over 130 protected trees to give his home an unobstructed view of the C&O Canal. The official took the fall and Snyder admitted no wrongdoing. McKenna even inserted a link to The Washington Post story that described the situation.
As for bragging about profiting from cancer and diabetes sufferers and being booted from the Six Flags board, both of those things happened. Snyder appeared on TV saying these words verbatim: “We saw that the aging baby boomer demographics were coming on strong. That meant there’s going to be a lot more diabetic patients, a lot more cancer patients, etc. How do we capture those market segments?” You can’t deny it. We got you on camera.
He also was removed from the Six Flags board of directors as part of the company’s bankruptcy reorganization plan. This is undisputed fact. It is part of the public record. I fail to see how Snyder and his coterie of highly-paid lawyers can convince a judge that reality isn’t real.
The most ironic aspect of the lawsuit came at its end. Snyder’s attorneys wrote, “the Misrepresentations clearly expose Mr. Snyder to hatred, contempt, ridicule, and obloquy and/or cause Mr. Snyder to be shunned or avoided, and have a tendency to injure him in his occupation.” Given that Dave McKenna’s article did not contain misrepresentations, but rather true representations of Snyder’s actions, it seems that Snyder exposed himself to hatred, contempt, ridicule, and obloquy.
Even more ironic is the fact that Washington City Paper is a minor and alternative weekly in a city dominated by The Washington Post. Many people in DC and nearly everyone beyond it never would have seen Dave McKenna’s article if Dan Snyder hadn’t drawn attention to it. Now, national news organizations and sports blogs everywhere have circulated the story of Snyder suing the City Paper, complete with links to the offending article.
As usual, Dan Snyder owes the vast majority of the damage to his reputation to himself. Just like he owes the vast majority of the damage to the Redskins franchise to himself.