Bruce Allen is the Washington Redskins' president and an unwitting jokester, well-known for such thigh-slappers as his claim that no matter how bad the team is, they're "winning off the field." He accidentally inspired more guffaws last week by claiming that his boss, team owner Dan Snyder, "doesn't get involved" in personnel decisions.
Nobody believed Allen; anybody at all familiar with him knows that Snyder is just about the nosiest owner in any major American sport. And that's why everybody now believes that Snyder's hand was at work in a major personnel decision at his sports radio station, WTEM-AM, also known as Sportstalk-980 and ESPN-980, that saw a moderately anti-Snyder host thrown off the air before he ever even got on.
"The beat goes on," one former Snyder employee tells me.
Sunday afternoon, rumors circled the Beltway that The Man Cave, a show about to debut on WTEM, had been canceled just a day before its scheduled rollout. Jason Reid, a former Redskins beat writer and then columnist for the Washington Post, had just quit his job at the newspaper—where he was occasionally tough on the team and its management, particularly late in his tenure—to host the program. Wised-up types circulated conspiracy theories alleging that Snyder had orchestrated Reid's hiring just to get him out of the Washington Post, but that gives the owner far too much credit as a tactician, say two sources familiar with the situation. Instead, the sources claim, Reid got bounced from his radio gig at the 11th hour because Snyder only recently found out that he'd been hired.
"Jason Reid has been disliked by [team] management and Dan for years, ever since he was a beat reporter," says a former Snyder employee familiar with the situation after talking with ex-colleagues. "For the radio guys to go down that path and try to hire him is bold, no question. But, ultimately, Dan wasn't in the loop on that hiring, and once he got looped in, he made them correct it. For anybody to speculate there was any strategic evil play here, they're kidding themselves. They're not strategic with anything at Redskins Park. The evil they do is always reactionary. What happened is, this finally filtered up to Dan, and whenever something like that happened he would blow his stack and say, 'Correct this or you're fired!' He never cares about the trail of bodies left along the way."
(In this case, the trail appears to include WTEM program director Chuck Sapienza, who hired Reid and assembled the team for The Man Cave. The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg tweeted today that station management was telling employees that Sapienza had "resigned.")
If there's irony in the situation, it's that anyone who has followed Snyder's dealings with the local hacks can't be surprised at all. Snyder has long used his money as a tool to reward, co-opt—and punish.
Jason Reid had to leave the Post to take Snyder's money because the paper wouldn't allow him to do both; it has rules regarding this specific conflict of interest. Being so conflicted, of course, is a fact of life for employees of the radio station, which devotes slightly less than 110 percent of its airtime to pumping up the boss's football team. But it's also a fact of life for the many D.C. media types who have taken Snyder's money while reporting on his football team. When he was still at the Post, for instance, Michael Wilbon—newly-minted faculty member at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism—was among the first to do so, going to work for the team-owned Redskins Broadcast Network in the summer of 1999, shortly after Snyder bought the franchise. The Post eventually disallowed such employment, but other news organizations in the market did not. The list of the conflicted has thus grown over the years, taking in the the likes of Sports Machine icon George Michael, local TV talent Dan Hellie (then of D.C. NBC affiliate, WRC-4, now an NFL Network reporter), and Lindsay Czarniak, who long before she became an ESPN anchor would wear licensed Redskins gear on the air and cash Snyder's checks while reporting on the team for both WRC-4 and the Redskins Broadcast Network.
These conflicts have only gotten more blatant in the new-media realm. Snyder's radio station is an affiliate of ESPN. And Reid, upon leaving the Post, also was hired by ESPN. Reid's first column in the new position was published last week, and it was about the Redskins, despite the fact that Reid already signed a deal to go into business with the people he was covering. (The fact that WTEM employees have email addresses that end with "redskins.com" should tell you how closely related the radio station and the football team are.)
Untangling all of this is a bit of a mess—which is, one supposes, the way Snyder likes it—but an ESPN source familiar with the negotiations with Reid says that Bristol was well aware that Reid had taken a job with Snyder when it hired him. During interviews, Reid was asked whether he'd be free to say what he felt about Snyder's team in both writing and on the radio while taking a paycheck from him. Reid gave the right answers, the source says, and he was brought on "to be an independent national voice."
"There were discussions of editorial independence," says the ESPN source," and we were under the impression that he believed he would have editorial independence with us and at his radio gig."
There's precedent for that—Wilbon's Pardon the Interruption co-host Tony Kornheiser has long had a late-morning show on Snyder's station. ESPN, says the source, had no role in Reid being fired from WTEM, and the fate of the radio show will have no impact on his employment at ESPN.
Snyder's spokesman, Tony Wyllie, meanwhile, declined to comment on the radio matter, referring questions to Rick Carmean, WTEM's general manager. Carmean did not return phone calls or an email.
Shitcanning Reid would represent backsliding for Snyder in his broadcasting relationships. Longtime WTEM host Steve Czaban, for example, had a reputation as one of the more honest appraisers of the Redskins in D.C. media—meaning he did a whole lot of bashing—before Snyder took over the station. Czaban lost his job hosting The Joe Gibbs Show on WTEM after the 2004 season, when Gibbs was perturbed by the lack of reverence. (During one Czaban broadcast a laugh track was inserted into a package from a Gibbs press conference.)
In 2006, team management got Czaban suspended by its "media partner" Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, where he moonlighted on fall weekends for Redskins postgame TV shows. Following a Week 10 blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Czaban opened an interview with quarterback Mark Brunell live on the air by asking, "Hey, Mark, do you believe you're the quarterback for this team next year, 2007?"
"That's certainly not a question for today," Brunell answered. He spent the rest of the interview fuming, and later complained to team management. Redskins officials turned the screws on Comcast, one of Snyder's famous "media partners," so Czaban got suspended by Comcast for three weeks. History vindicates Czaban's question: Brunell got benched by Gibbs before the next game for future bust Jason Campbell.
Then, in June 2008, Snyder paid $24.5 million to buy WTEM. But Snyder surprised lots of local listeners—and got credit for thickening his skin—when WTEM not only kept Czaban on the air, but gave him a new deal when his contract expired.
Earlier this year, Snyder appeared to show still more respect for the notion of editorial independence when WTEM brought back Al Koken, who had been the top hockey analyst in the D.C. market before losing his job when Snyder bought the station and got rid of anybody who didn't mesh with the all-Redskins mindset that permeated programming. Koken didn't leave quietly. He went on WJFK, a rival sports station, and dubbed Snyder's entire media operation "Dan Jazeera." But this hockey season, Koken's back, and has a regular feature on WTEM's drive-time shows in segments that promote him as the station's "Caps Insider."
But perhaps he's still employed just because Snyder turns the dial whenever WTEM breaks into puck talk and he's not even aware Koken's on the payroll. Given how the Reid disaster is playing out, maybe all of Snyder's apparent growth really was just ignorance—or apathy.
Whatever the background, The Man Cave did not air this morning. WTEM listeners instead heard, as usual, ESPN's Mike and Mike. While Reid could not be reached, a friend of his told me last night that he'd heard from Reid over the weekend and that the future of the show remained uncertain. Could he try to get his old job back? Matthew Vita, the Post's sports editor, declined comment when asked if Reid had the right of return. In his Twitter bio, Reid still identifies himself as "co-host of ESPN 980's The Man Cave." It's a role he never got to play.
At least not yet. Perhaps there's still time to roll this all back. Nobody gave a damn about The Man Cave, after all, until it got spiked, but it's been a massive media story in D.C. all day. Over at WJFK, a rival sports station in the market, they've been exploiting Snyder's latest PR debacle, airing new promos all day proclaiming, "No Man Cave! No Mandates! And no Mr. Snyder signing the checks!"
There's still time for Snyder to decide that the show will go on, and let Reid ride onto WTEM's programming schedule atop a wave of sympathetic media. Then, perhaps—for the very first time since he's been in the public eye—the owner could live up to the billing of "marketing genius" that so many dumbasses have ascribed to him through the years.
"This is petty and mean, and he's a petty, mean guy," says the former employee. "Whether it's football or radio or anything. This is him."
Know more? Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Disclosure: Dan Snyder once sued the author for writing mean things about him. Top photo via Getty