NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says a lot without saying anything at all. Sometimes he says things are one way — like teams’ hiring practices being “unacceptable” — when our eyes tell us the opposite.
One has to wonder, if there were a way to get Goodell to be candid for once, and find out if he regrets how he handled the investigation into the Washington Commanders‘ toxic workplace culture. Because it seems like there’s a whole lot of people looking at the league and some of its teams these days, and it’s not to applaud its increased television ratings.
We mean Wednesday’s news from The New York Times that New York state Attorney General Letitia James and the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington wrote a letter to the NFL threatening to investigate the league’s offices after an investigation the Times published in February detailed a workplace that demeaned and demoralized women and minorities.
“The NFL must do better — pink jerseys are not a replacement for equal treatment and full inclusion of women in the workplace,” the attorneys generals wrote. “Our offices will use the full weight of our authority to investigate and prosecute allegations of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation by employers throughout our states, including at the National Football League.”
We mean last week’s report from Front Office Sports that a former Washington employee told members of Congress that the team essentially kept two accounting books and withheld ticket revenue, which it is supposed to share with the league’s 31 other teams. The Commanders have denied the accusation.
The House Oversight Committee began looking beyond the allegations of an office rife with abuse and harassment of female employees, allegations that include team owner Daniel Snyder, and into the team’s business practices as well. And there was also a Capitol Hill roundtable in February, during which several former employees recounted years of uncomfortable at best, nightmarish at worst misconduct they endured or saw in team offices.
It’s easy for the NFL to pay lip service to the idea that it is trying to do better as the league trots out public service announcements to give the illusion that it is. But Congress and state AGs digging around might be enough to make Goodell and his employers, the franchise owners, squirm.
Which brings us back to the initial investigation in Washington, and Goodell’s (mis)handling of it that may have started this domino effect of negative headlines and closer looks.
After bungling the Ray Rice suspension in 2014, the commissioner pledged to do better. There was too much justified public outcry against Goodell to sweep aside after he initially gave Rice two games despite video evidence of Rice punching his then-fiancée unconscious and dragging her off the elevator where the assault happened before the league changed it to an indefinite suspension.
The NFL’s offices have added more women and non-white employees and executives, but women who spoke to The New York Times for its February story say it remains a place where women are generally excluded, and that the league is still highly invested in maintaining its “overall whiteness.”
And for his claim that the NFL would be more transparent, the findings of the investigation into Washington’s workplace culture have been as fiercely protected as the nuclear football. Not only was a report not released, Beth Wilkinson’s firm was instructed not to produce a written report, ostensibly because anything in writing could be leaked (just ask Jon Gruden).
Washington, not Snyder, received a fine that amounts to pocket change, and Snyder was told to stay out of the day-to-day happenings of the team. And that was after he was allowed to buy out the franchise’s minority owners.
The sad fact is that for most hardcore NFL fans, none of these off-field stories matter. They don’t care how female employees were abused and harassed, they don’t care if Snyder was truly sharing revenue with the other franchise owners as he’s supposed to do (though based on Washington’s attendance in recent years they weren’t missing out on much).
There are a lot of Commanders fans who care about the team’s performance, and know that under Snyder’s ownership there have been precious few playoff appearances, a parade of starting quarterbacks, and a litany of missteps and embarrassing moments for a once-proud franchise.
This hasn’t stopped the ownership class from protecting him, as if there isn’t another billionaire who is slightly more likable who’d pony up for Washington and bring some respectability to one of the league’s oldest clubs.
But for those of us who look beyond the standings and have been paying attention to some of the terrible stories swirling around the league in recent months, it’s worth wondering if Goodell regrets not telling the public at least some of what the women in Washington team offices endured and taking a harder stance with Snyder.
Because things have seemingly gone from bad to worse since.