The NFL has proven, once again, that it not only believes it is one of the most powerful and fiscally relevant private corporations in the United States (regardless of obvious depravity levels), but that it also believes the company and its old whites — namely, god of the underworld Roger Goodell and the sometimes racist, often sexist team owners he answers to — are above the law.
When Congress alerted the NFL to their investigation surrounding the league’s handling (or mishandling) of the Washington Football Team sexual harassment probe, the league said it would cooperate fully. But deadlines to turn over crucial documents, including more than 650,000 emails, came and went. Now, the league says some of the documents Congress seeks are potentially protected by “privilege,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The league cited concerns over attorney-client privilege, work-product privilege, or a combination of both.
But Congress, in more or less words, thinks that excuse is bullshit. “The NFL has no valid basis to withhold the documents the committee is seeking,” a committee spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal. “We expect the League to honor the commitment made by the Commissioner and fully comply with the Committee’s requests.”
Guess who else expects the league to honor its commitments? The former women employees and cheerleaders of the Washington Football Teams, whose stories were wrapped up in constricting NDAs and private settlements for years. They want accountability—but accountability is something the NFL rarely faces. Scandals come and go, and the NFL remains invincible, at the cost of the well being, safety, and security of dozens of women who have long suffered at the hands of men the NFL uplifts as model citizens.
Last month, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, began its congressional investigation into the NFL’s handling of the recent mess over at the Washington Football Team. And when I say “mess,” that’s not to trivialize the situation: It truly was a heaping pile of lascivious behavior. Women endured near incessant sexual harassment in the workplace (including sexual advances, sexualized comments about women employee’s bodies, and after-hours, inappropriate texts between a manager and his subordinate); lewd photos were taken of the former Redskins’ cheerleaders during their annual bikini photo shoot; and it was revealed that team owner Dan Snyder had settled a $1.6 million sexual misconduct case with a former woman employee (he and the team have not acknowledged any wrongdoing). In short, the women at the Washington Football Team were neither safe nor supported at work: They had just one HR employee for the entire organization, enabling the horrific treatment to endure for years.
After an 18-month probe, the NFL slapped the team with a $10 million fine (a measly amount for a multi-billion dollar organization), deeming the workplace practices “highly unprofessional,” complete with regular bullying, intimidation, and a “general lack of respect in the workplace...both generally and particularly for women.” But the full results of the investigation were never released, breaking from the NFL’s past protocol of post-investigation transparency. The NFL put out a few meaningless recommendations for the Team to improve its workplace (diversity training! More HR reps! Culture training!), and Snyder offered a standard apology, but many of the women impacted felt justice had not yet been served.
Then came the bombshell of former Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s emails that led to his resignation. The content of the emails had been discovered by the NFL as part of the WFT investigation and detailed “casual” misogynistic and homophobic language in emails from 2011 to early 2018. Some highlights include calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “faggot” and a “clueless anti football pussy;” complaining that the Rams shouldn’t draft “queers;” and making his contempt for female referees clear. Worst of all, Gruden exchanged emails with Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team, and other men regarding topless photos of two Washington team cheerleaders — their naked bodies passed around on a candy dish to feed the grubby hands of some rich troglodytes, without their consent or knowledge. This behavior is demeaning and horrific.
If all of this was an insignificant aside to the meat of the WFT investigation, what more does the NFL know? What are they hiding in the bowels of hundreds of thousands of emails sent across the league? That’s what Congress hopes to find out.
The congressional oversight team is finally (and rightfully) acknowledging the hegemonic power of a league as singular as the NFL — a league that consumes millions of households every February for the Super Bowl and permeates living rooms and machismo-bursting sports bars most Sundays throughout the fall and winter. The influence of the men who enjoy near-legendary status as they sit on their pretty little sporting thrones is undeniable. The players’ behavior — the sexual misconduct, domestic violence, mental health issues, and denouncement of public health mandates — matters. Those men aren’t just football players; they’re idols to young people across the nation. What they say, the causes they champion, and the way in which they constantly degrade women in the field matters—as does the behavior of their owners, coaches, and front office staff.
You can downplay the severity of a couple deflated footballs, which happened to help one of your kid-kissing, “my body is a temple” superstars and winning-est teams; you can try to downplay the scientific impact of concussions and CTE over time and pretend that your sport doesn’t kill its star players. But you cannot downplay these women. These women will not stop until they are heard.
The NFL’s time in court may be approaching. And you can bet there will be a parade of women ready to watch the league and the men it has long protected crash and burn.