At the NFL fall meeting last week, Jim Irsay, who is not one of the more public-facing of the 32 NFL owners, stood in front of the media for 13 minutes at the Conrad Hotel in Manhattan. The words of the Colts’ owner about the well-tarnished owner of the Washington franchise, Daniel Snyder, were well thought out.
“I believe there’s merit to remove him as owner,” Irsay said.
You’ve read much of the rest of it — Irsay saying the NFL stands for an egalitarian workplace and Snyder and his organization had consistently demeaned women, saying he hoped but didn’t know if the required 24 owners would vote to remove him, and Washington firing back with a defensive statement.
Two days later, once the folderol of the first owner to call for Snyder’s removal died down, I asked Irsay why he did it.
“Did you know,” Jim Irsay said, “that George Halas came to my wedding? Did you know that, at one of my first league meetings, Art Rooney welcomed me and gave me a cigar? I’ve learned from Pete Rozelle, from Paul Brown. How fortunate I have been. We are all fortunate to be a part of this great league! And I know, at night, when I open up the door, there’s a mirror, and that’s the person I have to answer to. How do we all want to be remembered by our great-grandchildren?”
Irsay’s dad, Robert, owned the Colts, and Jim took over as Colts GM in 1984, two years out of SMU. He took over ownership at 37 in 1997 after his father died. For 25 years as owner, he has been mostly seen and not heard at league meetings. Until Tuesday, with his savaging of the Washington owner.
“When I got in this business,” Irsay told me in an hour-long phone conversation Thursday, “some of the greatest owners in the history of the league — Wellington Mara [Giants], Dan Rooney [Pittsburgh], Lamar Hunt [Kansas City] — showed a young man learning the game how to behave under pressure, with decency, with integrity, always putting the game first. The [NFL] shield means something. You don’t take every penny. Why did the New York Giants take a revenue-sharing deal for the TV contract way back in the sixties? So all teams would have an equal chance. Because Wellington Mara was for the good of the league. It’s so important, what we stand for as a league.
“When Lamar Hunt died [in 2006], I remember being at his wake. And [former commissioner] Paul Tagliabue turned to me and said, ‘Well Jim, they’re all gone now. It’s your turn.’ And I’ve thought about that.”
There are those who would say Irsay is a flawed person, not the best one to preach the anti-Snyder sermon. He got a six-game league ban by Roger Goodell for a DUI in 2014. There are those who would say Irsay should have said these words to the owners in a closed session and not first to the media. Fair on both counts.
But the overwhelming sentiment I heard from people around the league in the days after Irsay spoke his mind was It’s about time someone spoke up. The serial degradation of women for years inside the Washington organization concerned Irsay, who one day will leave his team to his three daughters, and because the league has been more and more concerned with attracting female fans and club employees. “In the workplace today, the standard that the shield stands for, you have to stand for that and protect that,” he said at the meetings.
Snyder’s fate may be decided by a Congressional investigation, which is ongoing. His fate may be decided by a league investigation into business and harassment practices by the organization and Snyder. It sounded to me like Irsay’s mind is made up: Snyder must go. He was passionate and aggrieved over the phone, even two and a half days later.
“Two things destroy great institutions,” Irsay said. “Being emotional, and rationalization. Rationalization — that’s saying, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad, we can deal with this. You know people are always gonna love the game. They’ll always turn on the TV to watch Mahomes Sunday.’ “
The stewards of the game, and Irsay emerged as one last week, have to be ready to act to be sure Snyder doesn’t continue to chip away at the institution.