The NFL, based on Beth Wilkinson’s investigation, generally found serious misconduct within the Washington Football Team. The NFL will not be sharing specific details about the behavior that resulted in the broad-brush findings that culminated in a $10 million fine, up to $7 million in attorneys’ fees, and a “voluntary” relinquishment of day-to-day control of the team by owner Daniel Snyder, which reportedly will end only when Commissioner Roger Goodell authorizes it.
The league’s refusal to even commission a written report from investigator Beth Wilkinson — which obviously prevents the written report from ever being released or leaked — shows that the league (in my opinion) wants to avoid the dissemination of any specific factual findings regarding things said and done. Those specifics easily would ignite social media and potentially inflame the situation, possibly resulting in the league ultimately forcing Snyder to sell the team.
Obviously, bad things happened. Bad enough to get Goodell to conclude “that for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional.” Goodell concluded that “[b]ullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace.” Goodell also found that “[o]wnership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues,” that “senior executives engaged in inappropriate conduct themselves, including use of demeaning language and public embarrassment.”
So what caused Goodell to reach these conclusions? If the league has its way, we will never know. If we ever do know, it’s not just Snyder who will have to worry about being forced to sell — it’s Goodell who will have to worry about being forced out, like in 2014 after the Ray Rice fiasco.
The league justifies its anti-transparency position by citing the promise of confidentiality that was given to reluctant witnesses. That’s a convenient, and bogus, excuse. Information can be shared without individuals being named. Also, with no transparency about who does or doesn’t want transparency, it’s impossible to know whether and to what extent these fears of coming forward were truly an issue. All we know is that, for a relatively brief media conference call on Thursday, Lisa Friel available (not Beth Wilkinson or Goodell) filibustered through self-serving talking points that undoubtedly were crafted meticulously by NFL general counsel Jeff Pash.
Attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, who represent numerous former employees of the team, have accused the league of protecting Snyder. It definitely is. But the league isn’t doing it because Snyder is particularly powerful (he isn’t) or particularly popular (he isn’t) or particularly respected (he isn’t) among his peers. They’re doing it, in my opinion, because other owners don’t want to be held to a similar standard if other situations like this emerge with other teams.
Remember when Panthers owner Jerry Richardson abruptly sold the team after stories surfaced of past confidential settlements directed at his workplace behavior? As explained by Mark Leibovich in Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, a very real fear emerged that this was the tip of the iceberg. Some were surprised it took as long as it did for the chickens to roost in Washington. Although no other owners currently are embroiled in similar controversies, they don’t want to be. If those who would make accusations against other owners with other teams realize that the brass ring isn’t an eight-figure fine and a temporary timeout but a forced sale, they may be more likely to make accusations. (Or to settle those accusations confidentially for a major cash payment.)
Bottom line? The owners still run the league. And there may be other owners sitting in a lounge chair on the front porch of a glass house. Any stones thrown at Snyder eventually could be thrown right back at them.
Thus, in protecting Snyder, the NFL also has potentially protected any other owners who would be the next in line to be permanently canceled by the league, if that’s what had happened to Snyder.