A Congresswoman, billionaire and football coach walk into a bar …
After the bartender fetches their drinks, the lawmaker says to the billionaire and coach:
“I want you two to know that we’re going to investigate you and if we find any evidence of you entitled, privileged men abusing your positions of power, yet again, and in doing so creating a toxic, hostile and hazardous workplace for an acute group of people — you’re gonna have to answer for it, publicly.”
The coach turns away and pretends to not be listening.
“Yeah, whatever you say, chief. None of it will be made public so we’ll just dismiss it until some disaster happens and they’ll forget all about it,” said the billionaire, loud enough for the entire room to hear.
What? You don’t get it?
Yeah, neither do the more than 50 people who made allegations of sexual harassment while working for billionaire, a handful of politicians and, well – everyone else.
In the summer of 2020, the National Football League began an extensive investigation into allegations of harassment and workplace hostility within the Washington Football Team organization, formerly known as the Washington Redskins. The allegations of harassment date back to 2006 and were revealed after the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal published extensive stories about the alleged abuse within the Capital’s football team, prompting the NFL to investigate.
The league did so and after a 10-month investigation, Lisa Friel, the NFL’s Special Counsel for Investigation, said “the culture at the club was very toxic and it fell far short of the NFL’s values, and we hold ownership to a high standard which is why today’s announcement is not only about accountability for the past but also ensuring the improvements already underway as the club continues in the future.” According to the report, the league concluded that the team’s “ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues. In some instances, senior executives engaged in inappropriate conduct themselves, including use of demeaning language and public embarrassment. This set the tone for the organization and led to key executives believing that disrespectful behavior and more serious misconduct was acceptable in the workplace.”
Wilkinson made 10 recommendations to the football team, (1) develop a formal protocol for reporting allegations of harassment and misconduct; (2) develop a disciplinary action plan; (3) conduct anonymous workplace culture and sexual harassment surveys; (4) hire a third party to provide regular training for all employees on bullying, sexual harassment, and other workplace conduct issues; (5) increase the number of women and minority employees throughout the organization; (6) implement a clear organization structure with clear lines of authority; (7) expand and empower the organization’s in-house human resources and legal departments; (8) create a formal onboarding process for new hires and a program for regular performance reviews and exit interviews for departing employees; (9) assign an HR employee to the cheerleading squad or coed dance team; (10) retain an independent consultant to conduct an annual assessment of employment policies. The team was required to report each of the 10 steps after implementation was complete. The league also required any reports or complaints of offense or oppressing misbehavior by anyone at the team to not only be reported to the team’s administration but also the league itself.
The team’s attorney, Beth Wilkinson, also did an investigation and provided a verbal report to the NFL and its owners of her findings – which were summarized in a two-paragraph statement. There were more than 150 people interviewed during the league’s investigation and as a result the league fined the football team an unprecedented $10 million for its toxic workplace culture.
In anticipation of the investigation, team owner Daniel Snyder also stepped down as CEO and promoted his wife, Tanya, to the helm of the organization.
The investigation took 10 months and as a result of the investigations, in addition to Snyder, about a dozen or so executives, media personalities and other employees directly employed by the team were fired or left the organization. And that was that. The NFL said clearly it was not releasing any part of the investigation, or any documents used, because folks involved in the investigation requested anonymity. No lawmakers issued statements, and no one brought up the bigger question at hand: what, exactly, is “private” and what is covered by our nation’s privacy laws?
Fast forward to the fall of 2021. Some e-mails between a previously fired team executive, Bruce Allen, and a decorated coach and plucky TV personality, Jon Gruden, were leaked to the media, presumably from the investigation, and showed that Gruden, the current coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, had used a racist trope to describe NFL Players Association Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith, claimed the league pressured the Rams to draft Michael Sam – the first openly gay draft-eligible player in NFL history – and used homophobic language to describe the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell. The e-mails, nearly all of them a decade old, cost Gruden his job and forced a reexamination of the alleged findings from the investigations.
This time, only after the leaked e-mails became public, Congress inserted itself and demanded the league release its findings by 4 November. In response, the NFL doubled-down on its original stance of not releasing any of the findings – but also said it would also “fully cooperate” with any requests from Congress.
The reasoning for not making the investigation public, according to Goodell, was that some of those involved in the investigation requested anonymity and because f that the findings would not be made public.
Shortly after the leaked e-mails sparked more discussion regarding privacy, Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, two attorneys representing the 40 women who made allegations of sexual harassment while working for the football team during the previous investigation, sent a two-page letter to the league’s commissioner. The attorneys stated their clients only requested protection from retaliation and they absolutely wanted the findings released upon completion of the investigation.
Banks and Katz wrote that Goodell “misrepresented the wishes of our clients, and likely those of the other women and men who came forward, to justify your decision to bury what we know would be a damning report.”
In addition to the reporting of the New York Time and Wall Street Journal, the team’s hometown paper, the Washington Post, also published a story in 2020 which broke the news that 15 former team employees were sexually harassed during their time with the organization.
That article, in combination with the others, named a handful of team employees, specifically naming many including Larry Michael, Alex Santos, Richard Mann II, Dennis Greene, and Mitch Gershman. According to the Post, article, the allegations raised by Applegate and others dated back to 2006 and span every year of Snyder’s tenure as owner. The allegations fall, essentially, into two categories: unwelcome overtures or comments of a sexual nature and outright suggestions to wear revealing clothing and to flirt with clients in order to close sales deals.”
Larry Michael, the club’s radio voice, was accused of openly discussing, in sexual terms, the appearance of several female employees and was also caught on a hot mic speaking sexually about a young intern. Michael was reported once to the team regarding his comment about an intern.
Alex Santos, the team’s director of pro personnel, was accused by eight people of making sexual remarks, while Richard Mann II, the team’s assistant director of pro personnel, also lost his job due to inappropriate texts, right after the articles revealed he has also been inappropriate.
Dennis Greene, the club’s president of business operations, also lost his job, Mitch Gershman, the team’s former chief operating officer, was also accused by three employees of sexual harassment and verbal abuse and he left the team in 2015.
The Post story also pointed out that the football team’s human resources department had only a single report of harassment on file.
It is also worth mentioning that former CEO and team owner, Snyder, in 2009, settled a sexual misconduct suit from a former employee for $1.6 million in order to “avoid any negative press.”
The football team also recently reached a settlement with former team cheerleaders who were filmed without their knowledge during swimsuit calendar photoshoots in 2008 and 2010. The team also announced the cheerleading program and band was put on hold until the rebranding of the team was complete. This “rebranding” still is not complete.
It is also worth mentioning that the league, in March of 2021, approved the acquisition of the remaining 40.5% of the billion-dollar football team by the Snyders – a move that required every owner’s approval. The University of Buffalo’s School of Law has laid out a very comprehensive timeline of the entire saga here.
Now here we are. Two House Democrats, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, have send a letter to Goodell asking that the league produce “all documents and communications” involved in the investigation. They set a deadline of November 4th. They also asked, specifically, about the nature of the involvement of NFL’s general counsel, Jeff Pash, in the investigation. The same leaked emails indicated Pash is and was always a very close friend of Bruce Allen’s.
Congress has inserted itself into other sports-related matters before, including the high-profile allegations of steroid use in Major League Baseball and the NFL’s attempt to influence and quell dreadful concussion research from the public and players. Multiple committees in Congress claim to have jurisdiction over what goes on in professional sports and are backed by very broad subpoena powers as well as interest from other committees that include House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation, since sports are considered interstate commerce.
And finally, Gruden, the fired Raiders coach, recently filed a 21-page lawsuit accusing the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell of myriad allegations regarding the league’s actions and motivations in his firing.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) who also sits on the House Oversight and Reform Committee has also said publicly she thinks a hearing would be “highly likely.”
Despite Goodell saying several times that both the football team and the NFL would fully cooperate with any requests from Congress, lawmakers have said the league has sent only answers to the members’ questions and no actual documentation or material included in the investigation, which was what was originally requested.
Now that Congress has halted the NFL’s efforts to turn the page on the Washington Football Team’s many, many scandals, the team is now eligible for the NFL’s promised land, the playoffs, for the second-consecutive season.
So, will the momentum of the post-Me Too and Lean-In eras, combined with some fantastic journalism and pressure from powerful lawmakers finally hold a group of privileged, oppressive, rich white men accountable for creating a toxic work environment?
Thus far it appears the joke is on us if we think so. And, if you believe the sportscaster who coined the phrase “March Madness,” Brent Musburger even weighted in on a Las Vegas Raiders broadcast over the past weekend saying Gruden was the target of a “paid assassin;” with the broadcasting icon agreeing with Gruden and his lawsuit; suggesting that the NFL and Snyders are using Gruden as a media cover for the WFT’s myriad scandals.