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Josh Harris and Co. can begin cleanup job in Washington as Dan Snyder's failed ownership ends

Early on, when the stories centered on suing grandmothers who fell behind on season ticket payments, firing valued executives to replace them with obsequious friends and treating even others in the NFL universe with a sneering smartest-guy-in-the-room arrogance, the NFL and everyone else was able to mostly look the other way when it came to Daniel Snyder.

Sports leagues have no shortage of unlikeable owners, and they certainly have no problem with bottom-line business tactics, and what the league and Snyder's fellow owners were sure they knew was that Snyder was smart and ambitious and knew how to make money. For years, Snyder remained firmly in control of the team, even as, we have since learned, the behavior inside the Washington organization was growing more grotesque. The racist team nickname was still defended by those inside and outside the organization. And after an investigation revealed a workplace rife with sexual harassment, the NFL went easy on Snyder, pointedly noting that the independent counsel in charge "was not specifically tasked with confirming or rejecting any particular allegation of inappropriate conduct." Snyder was protected by the release of only a cursory summary of the investigation and a suspension that wasn't even called that.

A subsequent Congressional investigation found Snyder engaged in misconduct himself and interfered with both the Congressional and initial independent investigation. It also uncovered potential financial improprieties by the team and it criticized the NFL for having "misled the public" in its first look at the Washington franchise.

Finally, when the accrual of investigations was too great and regularly besmirching the NFL, and when the inability to conduct meaningful business -- like building a new stadium -- became too acute, Snyder decided to sell. Snyder had, by then, lost the support of even his very few friends in the NFL. Other owners had ruminated about how to get Snyder out. Last October, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said publicly what others had only said privately -- that the owners had to consider ousting Snyder if he would not go willingly. Snyder had previously said he would never sell. Within weeks, he had changed his mind and on Thursday, at long last, the sale to a group headed by Josh Harris, the co-founder of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, was approved by NFL owners.

The league announced Thursday Snyder will pay $60 million to settle all matters, including punishment for behavior detailed in the findings of an NFL investigation conducted by former U.S. Attorney and SEC Chair Mary Jo White that was also made public Thursday. Those findings sustained an allegation that Snyder sexually harassed Tiffani Johnston, a former Commanders employee, and that the team deliberately underreported NFL revenues to avoid having to share them with other teams. While the day started with the league's owners barely containing their glee at the prospect of being rid of Snyder, by the end of the day, they were somber and angry about the findings from the league's investigation. Commissioner Roger Goodell was measured in his remarks, saying that White's findings spoke for themselves and that Snyder's behavior did not match the NFL's values.

The sale was approved unanimously by owners, and that alone speaks to how anxious the NFL was to close the book on Snyder. The structure of the deal with Harris is unusual by NFL standards, and the league worked for weeks with Harris' group to get it into compliance with the NFL's strict rules for ownership. Even at the final hour, the league's finance committee spent hours reviewing the details and the feeling from two people familiar with owners' thinking was that if this sale wasn't about getting rid of Snyder, this deal would likely not have been approved. Underlying the NFL's desire to work with Harris to get the deal closed was a stew of anticipation and anxiety -- anticipation of being rid of Snyder and his incessant controversies and what a new owner would do with one of the league's formerly premier franchises, and anxiety, expressed privately by some owners, that they would believe Snyder was really out only when it was over.

Harris also owns the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL's New Jersey Devils and apparently knows how to run teams that go to the playoffs -- they both did this year. For that reason alone, before Harris even gets the keys to the building, he is already a refreshing change of pace for Washington fans.

Snyder, who bought the team he grew up rooting for in 1999 for $800 million, walks away with more than $6 billion. It is hard to stomach how handsomely he is profiting after the misery he inflicted on so many, especially the dozens of women who worked for him and came forward to detail their experiences, including those who did so in The Washington Post, kicking off the investigations that helped pave the road to the end of his time as owner. Ultimately, it is a price worth paying to cut off Snyder from the only reason anybody paid attention to him.

With the release of White's findings, the NFL is nearing the conclusion of Snyder's 24-year reign over the Washington Commanders, which was a failure on the field and off, with an absence of victories, enterprise, professionalism and morality.

No other owner was simultaneously so bad at business and so personally odious, driving what was once one of the most esteemed franchises in American sports into the ground in result and reputation, alienating fans, employees, business partners, sponsors and former players along the way. In 24 seasons, Washington went to the playoffs just six times -- twice under Joe Gibbs, whose return was one of Snyder's few good ideas. Snyder hired and fired coaches, sank millions into past-their-prime stars and led a franchise that even repeatedly, incredibly, botched tributes to the slain safety Sean Taylor. 

In recent years, with seating capacity at FedExField reduced to around 62,200, the few fans who still went to games in the increasingly decrepit stadium chanted for him to sell the team. For those fans, after the losses and humiliations, there is reason to celebrate. The NFL is celebrating, too. It excised its most corrosive figure and can now look forward to the rebirth of one of its most iconic franchises. As Goodell introduced Harris to the media following the vote, there was, notably, no fond look back at Snyder's tenure, as there had been a year ago when the league lauded the contributions of the Denver Broncos' former owner Pat Bowlen as the team was sold to the Walton-Penner group. In fact, Goodell did not speak of Snyder at all until he was asked directly about White's findings. The story of Snyder's era is a book the NFL was happy to slam shut.

For Harris and his group, though, this marks the beginning of a massive clean-up effort. Harris grew up in the area and was a fan of the team. In his opening remarks, he rhapsodized about walking to the old RFK Stadium, about rooting for Sonny Jurgensen and Art Monk, about remembering what the team used to mean to the region. Those days are long over, though.

"Emotionally, it's a huge day," Harris said in an interview with NFL Network. "It's very exciting. Who would have thought growing up in Chevy Chase, a middle class kid, having the opportunity to own your hometown franchise and lead it hopefully into a great place. It's emotionally exciting, but I'll be sleepless thinking about what I've got to do."  

The franchise ranked dead last in a player survey conducted by the NFL Players Association, earning low marks for everything from how player families are treated to locker room facilities to the training staff and travel arrangements. The headquarters in suburban Virginia is badly outdated by current NFL standards, and players even complained about a lack of warm water and adequate drainage in the locker room. 

And the stadium situation is urgent. Harris is likely to receive warm welcomes from political leaders in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, all of whom shunned Snyder's attempts to work out a stadium deal near the end. Harris conceded that the stadium process will be a long one. Changes will be made to FedExField to try to improve the situation there, but the Commanders are essentially starting over in pursuit of a new stadium. 

"It's an incredibly important decision," he said. "We want to create a stadium where opposing players don't want to come and where our fans like to come."

And, at some point during or after this season, Harris will have to decide if he wants to retain any part of the current leadership -- president Jason Wright, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Ron Rivera, among others -- or if, as many new owners do, he will install his own braintrust, free of ties to the toxicity that has overwhelmed the franchise. Harris will not make wholesale changes right now, because, he said, he wanted to learn what was really going on inside the organization.

Harris will probably get an extended honeymoon as the new owner, benefitting from the simple fact that he is not Snyder, and that should lead to renewed interest in the team almost immediately. Harris will have to take advantage of this opportunity. Fans fled as investigations mounted and trust with them must be rebuilt. Sponsors, who also dropped away from the Commanders, must be wooed anew. The Commanders have been in organizational limbo in recent years, particularly with Snyder's own status uncertain, and during that time, they have slid into disrepair. This is, in short, no quick fix. Harris has taken over other teams and built them back up and the lessons he learned there will inform how he approaches the Commanders now.

"Patience and long-term decision-making," he said. "Short-term decision-making doesn't work in sports. I would love to build a long-term winner. Let's say we win for one season and then we're terrible. I hate to lose. I'm very competitive. I don't really want to set that up. You need to be very thoughtful about the draft, about free agency, trades. You try to build edges. It means everything, analytics, sports science, how you treat the players. It's a lot of details to create edges."

On Thursday night, as owners left, there was a palpable sense of relief. In the last few months, that feeling -- and an air of anticipation -- engulfed fans and more than a few owners and league executives, as it became clear that the sale was going to go through.

Old Ox Brewery, which is located less than two miles from the Commanders' headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia, released an IPA after the sale agreement was announced called "Bye Dan." The can featured a picture of the team mascot, Major Tuddy, waving goodbye and saying, "Tastes like 23 years of bitterness." The first batch sold out in little more than an hour.

A toast of "Bye Dan" is in order for the fans who endured Snyder's reign, and especially for the women who had the courage to speak up and bring it to an end.

They forced everyone to stop looking the other way and finally to begin cleaning up the NFL's biggest blight.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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