The NFL that uneasily harbors Daniel Snyder is like a creaky old mansion the residents are trying to modernize while living in it. Snyder is a rotting floor that squeaks even as a new roof goes on. The trick for the league is how to tear Snyder out of its house and install sounder material without the structure collapsing.
It has been a summer of wokeness for the NFL on a lot of fronts, from Colin Kaepernick’s knee to team-mascot tokenism. Commissioner Roger Goodell, to his credit, has made some eye-widening acknowledgments and said what a league leader hardly ever does: We were wrong then; let’s get it right now. The serial sexual harassment and peeping-Tom videos of cheerleaders in Washington’s sinkhole of a football club represent another fulcrum issue on which the league needs to get it right. Goodell has said all the obligatory words about “abhorrent” workplace practices, and now we’ll see whether the NFL backs it up with serious action, rather than just a furrowed brow.
“It’s an opportunity, a real inflection point for the league,” said attorney Lisa J. Banks, who represents several women who once worked for the club.
The forcible removal of Snyder feels unlikely — owners are reluctant to set precedents and fear putting their own franchises in the crosshairs. But Goodell at least seems committed to nothing less than a full airing of Snyder’s conduct and the hostile workplace he hosted. And that’s an evolution. The NFL has a mountain of other crises on its hands, from how to stage a season amid a pandemic to the social justice urgencies of its players. Nevertheless, it put a meeting with Banks and her partner Debra Katz on the front burner Monday and made a couple of important concessions to the lawyers. Most importantly, the league took steps to ensure that women won’t suffer “retaliation” from Snyder if they speak openly to investigators and promised that any repercussions for Snyder will be “commensurate” with the findings. It was an interestingly swift and friendly response from the league.
The swiftness suggests two things. First, this is going to get worse rather than better for Snyder. More women are coming forward — upward of 50 now offering details of their experiences with the club — and their lawyers are being heard directly by the league. Second, if Snyder thinks he can contain this with his usual bullying legal tactics, he is wrong. The NFL appears ready to not only listen to these women but to protect them.
It has become obvious that the investigation conducted by renowned legal powerhouse Beth Wilkinson, though initially announced by Snyder, has been imposed on him by the league and that she will be answering to the commissioner’s office rather than to the owner. The ultimate test of her independence to investigate, of course, will be whether the league backs her up in forcing full candor and shielding those who talk from Snyder’s retaliation. But the league delivered a significant, if partial, victory to the attorneys in Monday’s meeting: It secured a concession from Snyder that women who work or worked for the club will be released from any nondisclosure agreements for the purpose of talking with Wilkinson. The lawyers also want their clients to be free to speak publicly if they wish, but it’s unclear whether the league will force Snyder to issue blanket releases. Watch. It will be a crucial test of the league’s intent — and the owner’s.
There are some reasons to believe the NFL is sincere about all of this. For one thing, it has an amicable relationship with Banks. If her name is familiar to NFL followers, that’s because last year she represented a woman who was threatened by star wide receiver Antonio Brown after she accused him of sexual assault. Banks helped win Brown’s suspension for eight games and he remains out of work, maybe for good.
No one has hammered the NFL harder than yours truly over the years for what appeared to be sham investigations, but this one seems different. This is not the same league that in 2014 reflexively ducked the Ray Rice domestic violence case until it was caught in a public firestorm. Since then Goodell has worked with a will to ensure NFL headquarters is more responsive and a better model of inclusion. Almost 37 percent of staffers in the league office are now women. Since 2014 in particular, women have been hired to fill some large offices, including special counsel for investigations and chief operating officer. And since 2016 it has mandated that at least one woman be interviewed for any openings in the league office.
Goodell has his shortcomings, but coddling indecency isn’t one of them, at least not lately. Leering codgers such as Jerry Richardson are out of the league or on the wane, and you can feel a new sensibility about social justice issues from executives such as former Washington great Mark Murphy, CEO and president of the Green Bay Packers, who said over the weekend, “It’s time to make changes.”
In 2014, Goodell promised, “We will get our house in order.” If the house is not entirely in order, it’s at least under renovation. But it won’t be fully complete until Snyder’s rot is removed.