The fall of Daniel Snyder as owner of the Washington Commanders cannot be explained in one moment.
But one of the highlights of his demise was when, on October 8, 2021, the Wall Street Journal published an article featuring emails between former Las Vegas Raiders head coach John Gruden and former Washington chief executive Bruce Allen that contained racist remarks about the then-executive: NFLPA Director DeMaurice Smith. These emails, which were received by Gruden while working as an ESPN analyst in 2011, started a chain of events that began with Gruden’s resignation/firing and accelerated the process that ultimately ended with Snyder selling the team.
If not for the leak of those emails, some believe that Snyder might still have owned Commanders, according to a report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham. Snyder had already been suspended by the NFL following numerous allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment, but the emergence of the emails led to a congressional investigation into Snyder, the NFL, and the commanders.
“In October, he was free and clean – he just needed to wait out the suspension and let everything fall apart,” a source close to Snyder told ESPN. “Serious miscalculation. If not for the leaks, he might have just survived.”
Snyder and Goodell are the prime suspects in the email leak
There are many prevailing theories about who leaked the emails and why.
The most common – ironically – Snyder himself. This has been rumored for a long time, but another source told ESPN that Snyder believed Gruden’s racist remarks would shift the focus from the Commanders owner to the former coach while diverting allegations of workplace misconduct to Allen, the former team principal.
If true, this is just another attempt by Snyder to control his own punishment over the past three years. It also wouldn’t be the first time Snider has used the personal correspondence of others to try and influence the league. His legal team reportedly produced “Powerpoint Blackmail” to undermine Beth Wilkinson’s investigation into COs and convince Goodell to remove Snyder from office after allegations of workplace misconduct came to light.
“What was presented was not a defense against any of Wilkinson’s findings against Snyder; it was a series of screenshots of potentially embarrassing emails and texts from several major league executives, including First Lieutenant Goodell, [NFL general counsel Jeff] Pash. The reason, according to a first-hand source, was to challenge the hypocrisy of league officials judging Snyder. The tactics were so ruthless that some lawyers felt uncomfortable. While none of the material was sexist, anti-gay, or graphic, the message was clear: if Goodell didn’t do what Snyder wanted regarding the consideration of the Wilkinson report and punishment, those emails and texts would be leaked.
More emails later surfaced—this time between Allen and Pash—in a New York Times article that was reportedly the same as in Snyder’s Powerpoint Blackmail. This again turned out to be an attempt to shift the blame from Snyder to Allen. Lawyers close to the league and Gruden also told ESPN that the decision to take the emails to the Journal and Times instead of the Washington Post was a major sign that Snyder was behind it.
Meanwhile, Gruden and Raiders owner Mark Davis believed that Goodell and the league’s top managers were the main culprits. Gruden still has a lawsuit against the league, while Davis reportedly said the timing of the leak “looks like a set-up” after he met with Goodell, according to ESPN. Davis was also reportedly angry that he was seemingly the last person to know about the existence of emails after Goodell, Pash and Snyder, and that he felt like a scapegoat for Snyder’s underlying issue.
“It’s funny that the league thought they could pick up emails from years ago when I wasn’t even a coach and try to end my career.” Gruden made the announcement to ESPN in an added statement. “At the very least, I’ve earned the opportunity to respond and get due process.”
The four owners also told ESPN — it’s not clear if Davis was one of them — they believed Goodell personally contributed to the emails being published. Other sources told ESPN that NFL executives at least approved the leak.
The US House Committee on Oversight and Reform also accused commanders of leaking emails in the course of its investigation.
Another possible suspect is former NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith, who was the target of Gruden’s racist rhetoric. A source told ESPN that Smith was “boasting” about his role in the leak, which coincidentally happened on the same day he was voted to keep the job. Lloyd Howell succeeded Smith as director of the NFLPA after 14 years on June 28.
Naturally, all parties either denied or refused to comment on these allegations.
We may never know for sure who leaked the emails. But the result of this has had, and likely will still have, major league ramifications. First, Commanders has a new owner, a group led by hedge fund manager Josh Harris. Whatever happens to Gruden’s lawsuit could also affect the league. The story is not over yet, but one of the biggest players has certainly left the game.
(Disclosure: Josh Harris is the co-founder of Apollo Global Management, which owns Yahoo, Inc. He left the private equity firm in 2022.)