The NFL expertly handled the announcement of the punishment imposed on the Washington Football Team and owner Daniel Snyder, tucking the bad news into the late afternoon hours of the Thursday that preceded what ultimately was, for many, a four-day Fourth of July weekend. As a result, the league’s bizarre decision to not request a written report from Beth Wilkinson and the inescapable conclusion that with no written report the league would have nothing to release never received the full criticism that those moves merited.
By Tuesday, July 6, everyone had moved on.
A recent development from a completely different context exposes the fallacy of the league’s decision not to seek a written report and, ultimately, not to share any of the details of the specific acts of misconduct that triggered a $10 million fine and a “voluntary” decision by Snyder to step aside from day-to-day management of the team, with a return reportedly hinging on the approval of Commissioner Roger Goodell (which if accurate makes the thing anything but voluntary).
The conclusion from New York Attorney General Letitia James that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo engaged in workplace sexual harassment appeared in a 165-page written report, which was released for public consumption and scrutiny and which concluded specific details about the things Cuomo allegedly did.
But what about the NFL’s claim that it didn’t list incidents or otherwise provide details because some of the individuals who provided information wanted confidentiality? The Cuomo report does exactly what we explained the NFL should have done — it lists specific instances of misconduct without naming the names of the persons involved.
From footnote 2 to the Cuomo report: “Many of the individuals we interviewed during our investigation expressed concern and fear over retaliation and requested that, to the extent possible, their identities not be disclosed. Thus, we have sought to anonymize individuals as much as possible, while ensuring the Report’s findings and the bases for our conclusions can be fully understood. We have not anonymized individuals whose identities are already publicly known, individuals whose conduct is implicated in the sexual harassment and retaliation allegations, or those who did not raise any concerns about retaliation. In certain instances, we have named individuals in one context but sought to anonymize them in others where, in our judgment, the specific identity was not necessary to understand the context.”
That’s the right way to do it. The league, in contrast, seized on the fact that some undisclosed number of current or former employees wanted confidentiality to provide blanket anonymity for everyone. How many insisted on secrecy? We don’t know, and we surely never will.
But the information regarding the specific misconduct on which the NFL’s conclusions were based could have been provided without naming names, as the Cuomo report did, referring to Executive Assistant #1, Trooper #1, and State Entity Employee #1.
Yes, the NFL could have done the same thing in the Washington report but it didn’t, because it didn’t want to. If it had, and if the details regarding the misconduct that sparked an eight-figure fine and a “voluntary” relinquishing of the reins for an indefinite period of time had come to light, the fan and media backlash could have forced the league to compel Snyder to sell the team. As explained at the time, by protecting Snyder against that kind of backlash the league essentially protected other owners who may find themselves in similar situations in the future.
Now, for the NFL, the precedent has been set. If/when something like this happens in the future, an investigation will occur, the details will be reported to the NFL verbally, no written report will be disclosed because no written report will exist, and no one will ever hear the specific facts and circumstance regarding the kind of misbehavior that could cause writers and fans to demand a much greater degree of accountability than what amounts to, for a multibillionaire, a financial slap on the wrist. That was the outcome even though, as Goodell concluded, “for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional,” . . . “[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, . . . [o]wnership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues,” and “senior executives engaged in inappropriate conduct themselves, including use of demeaning language and public embarrassment.”
This is where some will say that the NFL is a private enterprise, not a public body. And that is where I say baloney. The NFL and its teams have become public trusts, especially in the cities where any amount of public money has funded the team’s stadium. Indeed, the NFL has applied transparency to multiple other controversies; to do an about-face at this point becomes glaring.
Ultimately, however, it worked. More than a month after the conclusions of the non-report report became known, everyone has accepted the way the NFL handled the situation, and the news cycle has long since shifted to other things.
Maybe, given the way the Cuomo report was handled, it should shift back.