Under Daniel Snyder, Washington’s NFL team went from passion to pariah

Under Daniel Snyder, Washington’s NFL team went from passion to pariah

How Washington fell out of love with its NFL team — and came to despise its owner.

Washington fullback Darrel Young is mobbed by fans and teammates after scoring a touchdown in overtime against the Chargers in 2013. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Half a century ago, as a U.S. Senate committee debated forcing the National Football League to lift its blackout on TV broadcasts of home games, senators tripped over each other to exclaim that fans’ devotion to the Washington Redskins was so deep and unshakeable that the team’s stadium would certainly fill up even if games were shown on TV.

Sen. John O. Pastore (D-R.I.) described the “great amount of elation” on the streets of his Washington neighborhood when the team wins. “And when they lose, the community is sad for 24 hours,” he said. “You can’t buy that kind of loyalty.”

Put the games on TV, promised Robin Ficker, head of the Redskins Fan Club, and crime and delinquency will plummet as everyone, bad guys included, stays home to watch.

No, no, no, protested league commissioner Pete Rozelle. The Redskins are “an abnormal franchise,” he said. No other team is sold out so far in advance. Other, normal teams will lose countless ticket sales if we give away the games on television. But the senators, colored by their experience living in Redskins Country, weren’t buying it.

From the team’s legendary, decades-long waiting list for season tickets to its dominance of the local media, the D.C. region’s love affair with its football franchise made it the most valuable team in the league, No. 1 in attendance, a uniquely beloved institution that bridged the area’s political, economic, racial and geographic divides.

Even when the owner, Jack Kent Cooke, built a new, far less intimate stadium and moved the team in 1997 from RFK Stadium to suburban Maryland, inconveniently far from a Metro station, fans seemed wedded to their team.

But in the 24 years since Daniel Snyder won unanimous approval from NFL owners to buy the team after Cooke’s death, the bond between Washington fans and their team, renamed the Commanders last year, has softened and broken. Now, as Snyder appears to have reached a deal to sell the Commanders, the franchise drifts in a river of cynicism, disappointment and indifference, posing a powerful challenge to any new owner.

Along the Commanders’ road from first to last in the league in attendance, from love affair to dysfunctional relationship between fans and franchise, the team’s place in the hearts and minds of football followers locally and across the nation morphed from prime position to cellar dweller. For many years, the Redskins represented the side of Washington that much of the country never sees: loyal, devoted, united, hopeful. But after a quarter-century under Snyder’s control, the team now reflects the Washington that the capital’s critics and haters abhor: polarized and petty, a symbol of selfishness and scandal.

To understand the collapse of the team’s fan support, The Washington Post analyzed a complex web of factors, ranging from growing competition in the D.C. sports market and failure on the field to the owner’s management of the football team, its image and its fan relations. But even if there were a single reason the team lost its place in the hearts of Washingtonians, a huge question would remain: Can a new owner rekindle the flame? What would it take to rebuild the bonds Snyder inherited in 1999?

Soon after he bought the team that year, Snyder, citing a 40,000-strong wait list, expanded FedEx Field’s capacity to 91,000, the league’s largest. Two decades after the Redskins led the league in attendance in 2000, the fans have turned away: Last season, the Commanders landed dead last in attendance, averaging 58,106 a game, down 34 percent in 14 years. The Dallas Cowboys were No. 1, averaging 93,465 fans per game.

Nationwide, the Redskins were the sixth most popular team in the NFL in 2003, according to a Harris Poll. By 2009, the same survey found the team 17th in the league.

Locally, just 15 percent of D.C.-area respondents to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted in mid-February said the Commanders are their favorite professional sports team. In 2010, 31 percent of people across the region said the team was their favorite. Fifty-six percent of those who have become less interested in the Commanders said Snyder is the biggest reason.

The owner who had hoped to parlay his childhood passion for his home team into a dominant business, sports and civic success — at once a football powerhouse and a financial prize — instead became a regional pariah, a symbol to many fans of greed and incompetence.

Despising the local team’s owner is nearly as popular a sport as football itself, especially in cities that endure long stretches of losing. Snyder’s Commanders — after decades of swearing he would never give up the old team name, he agreed to do so in 2020 — have ranged from mediocre to terrible through nearly all of his tenure, racking up a 164-220-2 record and failing to register a playoff win since the 2005 season.

A lifelong Washingtonian, Snyder was a 34-year-old marketing executive when he bought the Redskins for a record $800 million — including substantial cash from his father and sister and an interest of about 40 percent from his partners, Mortimer Zuckerman and Fred Drasner. The Snyder group outbid John Kent Cooke, son of the team’s previous owner, Jack Kent Cooke.

“I’m not focused on the money, I’m focused on the opportunity and the dream,” Snyder said on his first day as owner. He quickly added 10,000 seats to the stadium, giving it the league’s highest capacity, and pumped up revenue by creating premium seats and letting fans leapfrog the waiting list by paying a $7,500 fee.

In the love affair between team and fans, no amount of growth seemed far-fetched.

For decades, and most powerfully from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Redskins seemed like the only game in town — they were literally the only pro team in D.C. proper for a time in the 1990s. In a city built on conflict and rivalry, the football team was the unifying unicorn, the one force that transcended party, class, race or geography. Come autumn Sundays, the entire region dressed in burgundy and gold. At barber shops and on street corners, in the luxury boxes where rich developers and powerful politicians crafted deals and in the stadium lots and upper deck seats where families knew each other only as fellow fans, Washingtonians united in common cause.

“After the riots in ’68 and the departure of the Senators in ’71, the Redskins owned this city,” said Michael Richman, who has written several books on the team’s history. “For politicians and celebrities, the Redskins game was the place to be seen.”

Especially under coaches George Allen and Joe Gibbs, RFK Stadium, the team’s home from 1961 to 1996, was like a club with 54,000 members, young and old, Black and White, blue collar and business suit.

The first time veteran NFL journalist Peter King covered a game at RFK, the place was seared in his memory. The press box rocked with each huge play. The stadium was literally shaking under the weight of tens of thousands of cheering fans.

“It wasn’t any minor shaking,” recalled King, who in 1985 was a 28-year-old rookie New York Giants beat writer. “It was like there was an earthquake.” Games at RFK became some of his favorite assignments. “No matter what you do in life, you want to do something that feels important. And when I went to cover a game in Washington, walking up to the stadium on game day, there were bands playing and really enthusiastic fans. I thought: ‘Oh, man! I am covering an event in the seat of power of the United States!’ ”

For players, the thrill was palpable. The pregame drive to Lot 5 at the stadium was a high in itself. Constitution Avenue would be lined with fans who treated game day like Christmas Day.

“They started to know our cars; we all took the same route,” said former guard Tre Johnson, a Washington rookie in 1994, when the aura of Super Bowl championships still hung over the team.

Walking from his car to the gate, Johnson said, “all the people were waving and cheering,” the music blasting, the tailgaters grilling and sharing half-smokes. And there was Jackie, the security guard who gave him a good-luck kiss every time he passed her post.

“I always played better because I got a kiss from her,” Johnson said. “You wanted to play for this group; you wanted to win for them.”

“It was legendary,” said Russ Ramsey, a prominent business leader and co-founder of the Greater Washington Partnership, an organization of executives active in recruiting major sports events to the area. But since Cooke sold to Snyder, “that has become a less desirable place to be.” Ramsey dropped his season tickets to a luxury box a few years ago, “for a range of reasons,” he said, chief among them that two close friends who shared the box died.

When Snyder took over, fans saw great promise in a young, self-made millionaire determined to pour his riches into restoring Redskins glory. Snyder shared their DNA, having been reared on Sonny Jurgensen, Sam Huff and Frank Herzog’s radio accounts of the games.

But within days, Snyder started dismantling the organization, firing longtime secretaries, ticket-sales staff—even general manager Charley Casserly, who had learned the craft of NFL roster-building from future Hall of Famer Bobby Beathard.

Stocked with Casserly’s players, the 1999 team proceeded to win the NFC East, finishing 10-6.

Yet Snyder responded by overhauling the roster via a free agency spending binge that brought in a clutch of famous names in the sunset of their careers.

“Obviously he’s some form of brilliant businessman to be able to buy the team, but on the football team, so many moves were made to dismantle what we had built,” Johnson said. “We brought in people who were past their prime — Hall of Fame guys — but they weren’t who they were. And it disrupted the chemistry.”

Players, team employees and fans saw a new meanness. Unhappy with the team’s defense, Snyder left a carton of melting vanilla ice cream on the desk of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, along with a note that read, “I do not like vanilla.”

Veteran broadcaster Herzog, a regular presence at practice, sensed the shift.

“I just felt like it was waters full of sharks,” he recalled. “People were always on their toes, watching out for what was said.”

Snyder quickly became a scapegoat for his team’s ills, reviled by many fans, players and league officials. He burned through partners in his ownership group, piled up debt and found himself mistrusted and ostracized by Washington business leaders and politicians, who viewed him as arrogant, fixated on the bottom line and inattentive to his team’s history and traditions — a view that only solidified as his management style alienated fans and sparked allegations of abuse and misogyny.

From his sacking of Coach Norv Turner despite a winning record midway through Snyder’s second season to his battles with fans, the news media and the government, the new owner presided over a souring of the fan base that extended far beyond standard-issue razzing of the billionaire boss. (Some of the most-loathed team owners in modern history were at least able to boast of good records on the field, the New York Yankees’ George Steinbrenner being the classic example.)

In more recent years, things got markedly worse. The franchise nose-dived at the box office, going from sellouts to a consistently half-empty stadium where many, and sometimes most, of the fans root for the visiting squad. Snyder largely stopped talking to the news media. The Commanders — once the region’s primary public symbol of shared community — became an embarrassment, socially and politically, as revelations of improper, sexist and abusive behavior in the front office spawned internet memes, congressional hearings and years-long legal investigations.

The stories of three die-hard fans illuminate the pains, pressures and passions that define the team’s decline:

As a kid growing up in Fairfax County in the 1960s, Bob McDonnell — who would be elected governor of Virginia in 2009 — made the trip into the District with his father hours before each game and stayed hours afterward, tailgating in the RFK parking lots with people from across the region. Decades later, McDonnell, who married a Redskins cheerleader, brought his own kids to the games, extending the family tradition.

But McDonnell, now a consultant in Virginia Beach, hasn’t been back to a Washington game since 2014. He quit going because his Redskins kept losing and “there was way too much drama with the team.” The team he grew up with was no longer lovable, no longer worthy of his loyalty. It had become, he said, one more overly politicized piece of a splintering American culture.

Between family and friends, Andrew Parks was once able to count on 20 or more people showing up to tailgate with him at Redskins games — a ritual he traced to boyhood, when he would bring a little radio to the games and listen to “Sonny, Sam and Frank” narrate the action.

“Now it’s just me and my son,” said Parks, a 56-year-old restaurateur in Annapolis, at the Commanders’ final home game in January. Going to games was Parks’s relief from long hours and high stress at work. But in recent years, it has been hard to get other people to share his enthusiasm.

Although he has maintained his field-level season tickets at Washington’s 25-yard-line, “it’s been awful,” Parks said. “I hate Snyder. Everything they do goes wrong. The cheerleaders. The scandals. We don’t know half of it. But I’m loyal to the team.”

He looked over to his son, Dylan, shook his head in sympathy, and said: “I went to two Super Bowl wins. He doesn’t know what that is. Look around: Everybody’s getting older here.”

Dylan likes coming to games with his dad, but it hasn’t been easy. At school, his friends show no interest in the Commanders. They rib Dylan for sticking with the home team.

“It’s hard to support a team you never associate with winning,” Dylan said. “My friends don’t get it. They’re for anyone who’s winning.”

“It’s easy to switch to a winner,” noted Julian Boggan, 65, a longtime fan from Prince William County in Northern Virginia. But he and his family keep coming to Commanders games because, “even though Snyder’s run this team into the ground, just riding it till he makes as much money as he can,” fans’ duty is to stick with their team.

Still, there are limits. About 10 years ago, when Boggan’s name finally came up after years on the wait list, he turned down the season tickets he had long yearned for. “I didn’t want them anymore,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s just a millionaire toy for him. The only thing we as fans have going for us is that he’s had so many scandals, he may finally be run out.”

The Commanders’ descent from sellout crowds to the embarrassment of tarped-over upper deck seats (even after the team reduced capacity by removing seats three times in a five-year span) was driven by a confluence of factors, most of them specific to Washington, its franchise and its owner:

Bad signings: Snyder wasn’t, by his own later admission, ready to run a franchise when he bought the Redskins. He conceded he was too hands-on in his early years, chasing after big-ticket “players with reputations that were probably entering the downside of their careers,” he told Richman. “I did that, absolutely.”

“You don’t need a really complicated explanation for what happened,” said Kevin Hassett, an economist and fan who analyzed the team’s decline in an academic paper before becoming chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Trump administration. “In the offseason, they make befuddling moves. In the season, they don’t play very well. There’s not really a reason to like them.”

Hassett said Snyder’s mismanagement came down to one central problem: “They’re economically illiterate. To have a winning team, you need $20 million performances from players you pay $1 million. Snyder kept trading away draft picks to sign very expensive free agents, and he ended up paying players $20 million for $1 million performances — exactly the opposite of what you need to do.”

Extraordinary turnover: Snyder repeatedly undermined his coaches’ authority, according to players, coaches and league officials.

LaVar Arrington, the Penn State linebacker whom the team drafted with the second overall pick in 2000, said he never had a personal beef with Snyder but came to believe that his seven-season NFL career suffered from the constant turnover in the coaching ranks. In his six seasons in Washington, he played for five head coaches and five defensive coordinators.

“The consequence for me personally was a Hall of Fame career,” Arrington said. “It was just a divisive, toxic culture.”

The revolving door spun over and over. Snyder cycled through 10 coaches in 24 seasons. None departed with a winning record.

Coach Steve Spurrier resigned before the end of his second season after signing a five-year contract, ending another costly, high-profile gambit that backfired. He won just 12 of his 30 games.

Fans’ faith was restored overnight with the return of Gibbs, whom Snyder coaxed out of retirement at age 63, after a 12-year hiatus from coaching, with a five-year, $27.5 million contract. But the Gibbs 2.0 era also ended prematurely. He resigned after four years. Gibbs had a 140-65 record, including the playoffs, without Snyder as his boss; under Snyder’s ownership, Gibbs was 31-36.

The owner managed through fear. Employees were instructed to avert their eyes if they passed Snyder in the building. If required to speak to him, they were to address him as “Mr. Snyder.”

“I never understood his reasoning behind trying to be a tyrant instead of being somebody who was lovable,” Arrington said. Every owner finds that “there are times to be stern and firm on your beliefs. But that comes once you have earned trust. Who trusts Dan Snyder?”

Years of losing: Though some fans remained loyal despite the team’s mediocrity — a 42 percent winning percentage over more than two decades — many drifted away.

The story is told in the jerseys fans wear to home games: At the final game of this season, in one field-level section, more than 200 fans wore Washington jerseys, most of them bearing the names of heroes of bygone times: Theismann, Riggins, Taylor, Griffin. Only two fans sported the names of current Commanders.

“I would call the falloff of the Commanders 80 to 90 percent a matter of wins and losses,” said Ramsey, who led the unsuccessful drive to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to the D.C. region. “The other stuff, the noise around the team, is 10 to 20 percent. When they win, you don’t care about anything else.”

Leaving the city: The Redskins quit the District for suburban Maryland before Snyder bought the team. Cooke had built what was then the league’s biggest stadium in Prince George’s County, in a setting that guaranteed massive traffic jams around every home game.

In 1997, fans were willing to give the new stadium a chance. That first game ended in heart-stopping fashion, with Gus Frerotte firing a 40-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook to clinch the victory in overtime. But something was missing. The stands erupted over the victory, but the new stadium didn’t shake. Fans screamed, but the noise wasn’t earsplitting. And in the reassigning of seats from RFK, decades-long seatmates — game-day soul mates who had watched one another’s children grow up — were scattered to different locations.

The departure from the city led many fans to miss the camaraderie with the stadium’s neighbors, who could hear the crowd roar from their living rooms and who made money renting out their yards and alley parking spots, grilling burgers and selling drinks to pedestrians.

“When I came here in the ’60s, the Redskins were a family thing,” said Dick Smith, a retired defensive back who played for Washington in 1967 and 1968 and still lives in the city. “The players — Blacks and Whites both — became part of the community, lived in the city, practiced at RFK. The community made money on the parking, and we shared the economy.

“The Redskins had a racist past – everyone knew that,” Smith said. “But the players and the fans came together and really got to see and know each other because we were all in the city together.”

Deteriorating stadium: Many fans say the experience of attending games at FedEx grew markedly worse through the years.

But as dissatisfaction with FedEx Field led many fans and business leaders to pine for a return to the District, Snyder managed to turn many political leaders against the idea.

Former D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who played a central role in negotiating the Washington Nationals’ stadium deal, said he and other city officials came close to an agreement with Snyder to build a copy of RFK Stadium in the District, complete with springy seats, in 2018. But the deal fell apart when the Trump administration declined to grant the city long-term authority over the federally owned land. Soon after that, with revelations about the sexual harassment of team employees and exploitation of cheerleaders, a deal with the owner became too much for most politicians to bear.

“The team became an embarrassment,” Evans said, “and Snyder is an embarrassment. As a person, Snyder was a scoundrel. He did try his damnedest to get a stadium built, but by the end, there was no way any politician in the region could make a deal with him and survive.”

“I will be hard-pressed to say anything favorable about Dan Snyder,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who represents the neighborhoods near RFK. “He has been uniquely able to alienate and frankly piss off the entire region.

“And the scandals created a toxicity around the owner so that every elected official had to think about having to share a podium with your arm around him. Nobody wants that picture that will live forever.”

Allen and other elected officials, as well as business leaders in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, said Snyder particularly lost their trust when he declined to make improvements to the stadium that might have helped the region land the 2024 Olympics or host soccer’s 2026 World Cup tournament.

The “level of toxicity and mistrust with Snyder,” Allen said, was “unlike with any of our other sports team owners.”

New population, new competition: The demographics of both the city and the suburbs have changed markedly since Snyder bought the team — with the District becoming younger, whiter and more affluent and many suburbs growing more racially mixed, with more immigrants.

The District, once nearly 70 percent Black with an almost entirely Black-run government, police force and school system, was becoming a magnet for young White college graduates, attracted by government jobs and the burgeoning law and lobbying fields. In the suburbs, a suddenly blossoming tech industry in the Dulles Corridor and a similarly exploding biotech business in Montgomery County drove growth.

The rapidly growing economy made Washington, long an also-ran in the view of many sports executives, a newly appealing market: In 2005, baseball returned to Washington after a 33-year absence. Tech executive Ted Leonsis, a pioneer at America Online, the company that first took huge advantage of the D.C. area’s role as home of the guts of the internet, bought and invested in the NHL’s Capitals, NBA’s Wizards and WNBA’s Mystics, and the Capitals and Mystics won championships.

When the Redskins left in 1997, the city briefly had no major pro sports team within its boundaries. But a few years later, the football team would become the only franchise that did not play in the city; the Wizards and Capitals moved into their new downtown arena later in 1997, and baseball moved the Nationals to D.C. in 2005 and into a new ballpark in 2008. The Redskins’ virtual monopoly on fans’ attention had ended.

Snyder vs. fans: No factor in the team’s decline is more important than how the owner treated fans, according to fellow football executives, political leaders who have negotiated with Snyder and fans themselves.

The Redskins banned fans from parking off-site and walking to the stadium, nudging fans to pay for the team’s lots. The team charged fans $10 to visit training camp (plus $10 to park) — the first NFL team to do so. (Years later, Snyder called the training camp admission charge a “dumb move.”)

The litany of slights grew so voluminous that in 2010, Washington City Paper reporter Dave McKenna wrote an A-to-Z guide to Snyder’s “many failings,” with 51 entries, from “Andyman,” the phony name that top team officials allegedly used to post online rants against the news media, to “Weasel Stew,” the menu item a western Maryland restaurant invented after Snyder pulled out of a 10-year deal to hold training camp in Frostburg.

Snyder sued City Paper and McKenna over the article, which he said defamed him. The owner eventually dropped the suit.

Through it all, many fans held fast, refusing to let their frustrations with the owner override their lifelong allegiance to the burgundy and gold.

“I stuck with them through all the losing,” said Christopher Knight, 35, a concrete contractor in rural Grottoes, Va., “through him suing the fans and everything. Look at the stadium: The trees outside are dead, the seats don’t match, things were really falling apart.”

Knight taught his nephew, now 15, “to be as hardcore as I am.” But over the last couple of years, as his nephew complained of having to go to school “and listen to other kids give him abuse about Snyder and all the losing,” and as Knight felt betrayed by the decision to dump the team name and choose Commanders rather than one of the fans’ favorite alternatives, he started to question his bond.

Then came the scandals, the allegations from women of abuse, the investigations, such as the 2020 report that the league had concluded that Snyder paid a female employee $1.6 million a decade earlier, after she made what court papers called “a serious accusation of sexual misconduct” against Snyder from when the two flew on his private jet.

“It’s not okay in any sport,” Knight said. “That really bothered me.”

So now Knight finds himself in fan limbo, no longer going to games, still watching them on TV, waiting for the owner to go away. “I couldn’t switch to another team if I wanted to,” he said, “but I can’t take pride in them now.”

Daniel Snyder grew up in a Silver Spring apartment with no TV. He and his father, a freelance writer, had to walk over to the neighborhood TV store to watch Redskins games. In high school, Dan worked at a B. Dalton bookstore, and at 20, he paused his studies at the University of Maryland to launch his first business, selling spring break travel packages to college kids. He never returned to school.

From his earliest years as a fan to his decades as a pro sports pariah, Snyder was a hard-driving, stubborn guy determined to win and to make a buck.

Snyder “was always about the bottom line,” said Dennis Butts, a serial entrepreneur in Pennsylvania who had contracts with the Redskins to provide catering, transportation and security at training camp early during Snyder’s tenure. “He was arrogant and hardheaded but fair.”

He could also seem tightfisted: When Butts was moving players to a new training facility, “Dan refused to pay the $11,000 to move the mattresses, and we ended up eating that,” Butts said. And when Snyder rewarded Butts with a gift of field passes, “he refused to give us tickets so we could get into the stadium, and we had to negotiate that,” Butts recalled.

Butts, now 76, didn’t let his wrangling with Snyder affect his love of the team. In the early 2000s, he bought four season tickets on the 44-yard-line in Row 12 for $32,000 a year. He brought clients to the games, did some business, had a blast.

But then the team’s marketing office informed Butts that he had signed up for six years of season tickets. Butts said he had signed a one-year deal.

The team took the fan to court. The Redskins offered to take $32,000 and keep its tickets, or Butts could pay six times that amount and get the tickets. Butts turned that down, and the Redskins won a judgment requiring Butts to pay $209,000.

Butts said he later settled with the team and never had to pay any of the money.

The team sued at least 125 season ticket holders who couldn’t afford to keep up their payments on multiyear contracts Snyder required them to buy to keep seats they had held, in many cases, for decades.

“People like Dan cannot be wrong,” Butts said. “They will destroy their own companies rather than say, ‘I was wrong.’ ”

Even after that battle, Butts attended occasional games and remained a fan — until 2020, when Snyder dropped the Redskins name, one day after a lawyer for FedEx told the team that the company, which had committed $205 million to sponsoring the franchise, would pull its branding off the stadium if the moniker wasn’t changed.

“It’s no longer the Redskins to me,” Butts said. “I’m a Vietnam vet, with three Purple Hearts. We always looked at the Redskin name as an honor to the veterans. The Braves and the Chiefs didn’t change. He’s the only one who buckled under. I never went back to another game.”

These days, Butts doesn’t even turn on Commanders games, preferring to watch the Steelers.

But he will return — in a flash, he says — if the new owner changes the team’s name, brings back the Redskins band and starts to rebuild Redskins Nation, bringing in local college and high school bands, restoring the lyrics of the fight song. “I would drive all the way from Pennsylvania and go to every one of the games again,” he said. “The Redskins united the whole area, and they can do it again.”

When he was growing up in Fairfax City, Chap Petersen’s life revolved around the Redskins. For more than four decades, he loved the players, the band, singing “Hail to the Redskins” after every touchdown. He loved how the whole region seemed to empty out on autumn Sundays as most folks stayed inside watching the game.

Petersen, a 55-year-old lawyer who serves as a Democratic state senator from Fairfax, spent about 15 years on the wait list, finally scored seats in the upper deck, held them for 20 years, then traded up, landing six club seats where he entertained clients, family and friends. The tickets set him back $13,000 a year.

That all ended with the name change. Petersen, who had represented American Indian groups in their copyright battle with the team, “just decided, ‘I’m out,’ ” he said, “and I haven’t been to a game since. I don’t watch them on TV. It’s kind of how I think about the Brooklyn Dodgers — a great tradition that ran its course and ended.”

His attachment to the team began to fray years earlier. Petersen, who took Metro to make the 90-minute trip from Northern Virginia to the stadium, found Snyder charging fans — even season ticket holders — $5 to take a shuttle bus one mile from the transit station to the stadium.

“I’m, like, seriously?” Petersen said. “I pay thousands for season tickets and spend 90 minutes to get there, and you’re going to charge $5 for my 4-year-old daughter to get on the shuttle? A good owner would have tried to establish a bond with the fans — stand at the gate and greet them, sit in the stands, keep the traditions.”

Petersen started spending Sundays hiking the Appalachian Trail. “I’m good,” he said. “I’m not bitter.”

As a senator, Petersen was involved in talks with Snyder about replacing FedEx. The negotiations were friendly, but Petersen was shocked to see Snyder send lobbyists to meet with legislators who would have to approve any deal.

“When you’re a powerful person, that’s when you need to be the most humble,” he said. “Don’t send me an army of lobbyists to say, ‘We’re the Commanders, you’d be lucky to have us.’ This is a big deal for Virginia. You need to be here.”

After 24 years of noise, rancor and sorrow, Snyder appears to be withdrawing from Washington. He’s trying to sell one of his mansions, a $49 million expanse on 16 acres in Potomac, Md. He and his wife, Tanya, bought another estate, along the Potomac River near Mount Vernon, but they vacated that, too, according to people close to the family. In a filing to the British government last fall, Snyder said his primary residence was in England.

The decades-long search for a new stadium site remains frozen — at a seemingly dead end in the District, in a partisan stalemate in Virginia, stalled over possible locations in Maryland.

Snyder, Snyder, who ceded day-to-day control of the franchise to his wife Tanya in 2021 during the investigation of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties, largely retreated from public view.

For years, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged in congressional testimony, the team’s workplace was “unprofessional and unacceptable in numerous respects: bullying, widespread disrespect toward colleagues, use of demeaning language, public embarrassment, and harassment.” At the same time, the commissioner vouched for the team’s subsequent transformation, saying, “Dan Snyder has been held accountable.”

Former team executives testified that Snyder had actively participated in abusive behavior, fostering a work environment rife with sexual harassment.

After initially dodging a subpoena, Snyder testified via Zoom, fielding questions for roughly 10 hours and claiming more than 100 times that he did not know or could not recall information.

Many fans believe the Commanders can find a way back into their hearts in a post-Snyder era. Whether any team can so dominate the regional imagination again is another question. A more diverse population has led to a more varied mix of sports passions.

Virtually everyone who predicts a renaissance for the franchise sets a condition for a comeback: The team name needs to change again — some say back to Redskins, which seems extremely unlikely; others say to just about anything other than Commanders.

Arrington believes a new owner could rekindle fans’ passion by tapping into the team’s past in a sincere way rather than trying to monetize it. Washington fans, he said, would immediately see the difference between erecting a mannequin of the late Sean Taylor in front of the stadium’s gift shop, as the Commanders did under Snyder, and commissioning a statue to immortalize the Hogs, the beloved offensive line of the 1980s and early ’90s.

“When you own a business that is as impactful as a sport franchise — that brings a mother and father together, a husband and wife, grandparents, Blacks and Whites, Hispanics, you name it — you’re supposed to be a good steward over that,” Arrington said.

Petersen keeps playing the turnaround scenario in his mind: A sale, a name change, and “they need to figure out how to talk about their history,” he said. “They need to show their pride in what the team accomplished for 80 years. Okay, they changed their brand — people can live with that, but don’t ignore what the team meant to this community.”

“Hope springs eternal,” Ramsey said. “We’re always true to our school and to our hometown. We’ve seen it work with the Nationals and the Capitals. If you win, the world wants to get in line and be there.”

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