- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 14, 2022

OPINION:

The Washington Commanders got roughly five hours. At 7 a.m. Tuesday, the Commanders trotted out their new radio partnership — a deal touted by coach Ron Rivera as an opportunity to better get the word out of “who we’re trying to become.” 

By noon, the Commanders’ latest scandal broke. And once again, the controversy quickly put the focus back on what the team might have done.


This week’s allegations that the Commanders possibly committed unlawful financial conduct by failing to refund security deposits to season-ticket holders were the latest example of just how difficult — perhaps how impossible — it is for the team’s brass to truly establish a “new era” in Ashburn while working for owner Dan Snyder

Last month, Rivera said he had grown “tired” of the Commanders being an “easy target” amid a wave of negative stories.  The only way to alter their reputation, he said, was to win consistently. 

But this week further highlighted why winning may not be enough. If the Federal Trade Commission opens up an investigation into the team’s conduct — as the congressional committee investigating the Commanders has asked them to do  — the probe won’t just magically disappear if the Commanders win 12 games next season. These allegations are serious, as are the sexual misconduct claims that Congress and the NFL are investigating. 

What comes of them could be just as important when it comes to impacting the franchise’s reputation.

To be fair, Rivera hasn’t tried to downplay — or discredit — the problems facing the franchise. He told reporters he understands how serious the allegations have been, but noted it was his job to focus on football and try to create a “sustainable winning culture.” And winning, to be clear, would likely help bring back a portion of the fan base who have become indifferent after years of losing. 

Still, one can’t help but wonder just how much the two are connected. Has Washington been bad over the years because of its off-the-field scandals? Fans notably point to Snyder as the common link. 

This offseason, former starter Alex Smith acknowledged the toll the scandals take on the players.  He told “The Rich Eisen Show” that are a “lot of distractions” that make it difficult to focus on football. 

“To say that the stuff going on in the building doesn’t infiltrate the locker room or out on the field would be crazy,” Smith said. “All that noise creeps into the building. Yeah, it does. It does affect the product on the field.”

Smith’s last season with the Burgundy and Gold illustrated just how much of the team’s chaos can disrupt momentum. By most measures, the 2020 season was seen as a success for Washington as it made the playoffs for the first time in five years. But as its run was unfolding, Snyder’s problems still loomed as the billionaire was engaged in an ugly court battle with his former minority partners. Before that, players also dealt with the team’s name change, the league’s sexual misconduct investigation into the team and other adversity.

The year ended up being more complicated than the feel-good story that players and coaches might have envisioned. 

In Washington’s case, any positive momentum is almost immediately derailed by something larger. Even beyond how Washington’s radio announcement was overshadowed, there are plenty of other examples. Rivera, in his two years at the helm, seems to have picked up on this. 

Appearing on a podcast with ESPN’s John Keim in late March, Rivera pointed to his wife, Stephanie, how the House Oversight and Reform Committee held a congressional roundtable the day after the team unveiled its new name in February. 

That wasn’t a coincidence, Rivera says.

“Just before the name came out I said to Stephanie, ‘Things have been awful quiet and we have a big announcement coming up, just watch, just keep your eye out,’” Rivera said. “Sure enough, lo and behold, right after the game all the goodwill and everything we tried to accomplish and it came out.”

“It” in this case refers to the accusations made during the roundtable by former employee Tiffani Johnston, who accused Snyder of touching her thigh inappropriately underneath a table at a work dinner and added he later tried to coax her into his limo. Snyder denied the allegations, but they prompted the NFL to launch another investigation. 

Rivera called the challenge of shifting focus away from negative stories “frustrating.” And his players appear to agree.

“We get a lot of backlash on the team,” running back Antonio Gibson told Pro Football Network this week. “We’re tired of it. All you hear is, ‘Washington this, Washington this.’ We just got to show ‘em. We don’t get that talk if we winning games. … People forget about all that.”

If it were only that simple.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.


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