Examining the Washington Football Team Sexual Harassment Investigation Scandal

EVAN GILBERT—Dan Snyder has long been called one of the worst owners in sports, for a myriad of reasons, during his tenure at the helm of the NFL’s Washington Football Team (WFT). On July 16, 2020, Snyder became even more scorned, when the Washington Post reported workplace harassment in the organization. The Post detailed allegations by former team employee Emily Applegate and 14 other former female employees that WFT’s workplace was rife with sexual harassment, that female employees were verbally abused, and that it lacked a human resources department. The organization even required employees to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) threatening lawsuits if employees spoke poorly of the team, effectively silencing victims.

The Post followed with another investigation the next month detailing the allegations of over one hundred of the organization’s then current and former employees, detailing how the organization had “marginalized, discriminated against and exploited” women. Twenty-five women made allegations of sexual harassment, and most requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal due to NDAs. The report also detailed disturbing mistreatment of the team’s cheerleaders, including a lewd video allegedly made for Snyder, which resulted in a legal settlement between the cheerleaders and the team.

The flurry of allegations led to the NFL taking over the team investigation into the scandal, which was conducted by prominent attorney Beth Wilkinson. The NFL had previously conducted its fair share of high-profile investigations. The league spent over $22 million on Deflategate, an investigation into a minor rules violation, which resulted in a four-game suspension for former New England Patriots Star Quarterback Tom Brady. The league also commissioned the Ray Rice investigation, conducted by Robert Mueller (yes, that Robert Mueller), looking into whether anyone at the NFL had seen the horrific video at the heart of that matter before the NFL’s initial inadequate suspension of Rice. Both of those investigations resulted in written reports detailing the investigations findings to the public.

The WFT investigation, however, was closed this past July with only an oral report to Commissioner Roger Goodell, and resulted in a $10 million fine and Snyder’s wife, Tanya, being named Co-CEO of the team. Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, attorneys representing 40 former employees, called the move “outrageous” and a “slap in the face” to all the victims of the team’s abusive culture. Wilkinson had interviewed more than 150 current and former employees of the organization and collected hundreds of thousands of documents, yet none of it saw the light of day. The NFL’s handling of the investigation was even more troubling because most of the employees’ claims were subject to statute of limitations, which meant the NFL’s investigation was the only recourse they had to seek some sort of justice.

Despite this, the furor surrounding the investigation had seemingly passed until early October, when emails that had been collected during the WFT investigation were leaked. The emails, sent to former WFT General Manager Bruce Allen, contained racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments by Jon Gruden, the now former coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. He was fired by the Raiders soon after the emails leaked, ironically making him the most high-profile figure to lose his job as a result of the investigation. Gruden has since filed suit against the NFL and Goodell accusing them of leaking the emails.

The leak prompted renewed scrutiny of the NFL’s handling of the investigation. The Chairwoman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), along with Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), sent a letter to the NFL requesting answers to a series of questions and all documents and communications gathered as part of the WFT investigation by November 4th. Two former team employees then delivered a letter to the NFL owners meeting imploring the league, once again, to make public the findings of the investigation. The next day, Goodell reiterated at a press conference that the league would not release the investigation’s findings, prompting further outcry. The NFL partially responded to the Oversight Committee’s letter, answering questions but refusing to hand over documents.

The fallout from the scandal has been immense and continue to fester. With the possibility of a protracted Congressional investigation looming, the Committee is urging the NFL and WFT to lift any remaining NDAs so victims can share their full stories with Congress. The Committee’s focus on NDAs could result in renewed Congressional interest in banning NDAs related to workplace harassment. Regardless, given the NFL’s continued insistence that it will not make the findings of the investigation public, Congress may be the best hope for forcing the NFL to finally do what it has done in the past—release a written report detailing the investigation’s findings.