The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s time for the NFL to come clean about its WFT investigation

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at an October game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders. (Kyusung Gong/AP)
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Let’s start with Jon Gruden, if only to get him out of the way.

He is done as a football coach, even as a TV personality after the racist, misogynist and homophobic emails he exchanged with former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen were leaked this month. His legacy as a good football coach — a 117-112 overall record, with one moment of glory, the 2003 Super Bowl — is destroyed. As it should be.

But Gruden no longer matters. In fact, Allen, who was Washington owner Daniel Snyder’s right-hand man for 10 years, doesn’t matter, either, even though he’s every bit the villain Gruden is.

What matters is this: The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell have done everything possible to cover up for Snyder and his organization from the day this newspaper began to break stories about the toxic atmosphere — especially for women — that existed for years and years under Snyder’s watch.

It started when the league first allowed Snyder to hire Beth Wilkinson’s law firm to investigate the charges. Seriously? When the league finally realized how bad that looked — remember, image always trumps substance for the NFL — it announced it was taking over the supervision of the investigation.

Jon Gruden’s emails were jarring. To some in the NFL, they weren’t surprising.

All that meant, as it turned out, was that the league was in charge of the blatant coverup that has been perpetrated on the public. It’s a bit ironic that Gruden stood up last week and claimed, “I am not a racist,” because the words almost directly echoed President Richard M. Nixon’s “I am not a crook” claim in the midst of the Watergate investigation 47 years ago.

That was the most famous and important coverup of our lifetimes. But this one is every bit as blatant, if not as important.

The coverup has been apparent since the NFL grandly announced it was fining Snyder $10 million — a financial wrist-slap for a billionaire — and that Wilkinson’s investigation had found a “toxic” atmosphere that including bullying and an apparent disregard for complaints about sexual harassment from female employees.

Was anybody fired? Allen already had been fired after a horrific 2019 season because the team continued to fail on the field. Play-by-play man Larry Michael, who was implicated in the workplace misbehavior, already had retired.

The big change? Tanya Snyder, the owner’s wife, was named co-CEO, and her husband, it was announced, would “concentrate on a new stadium plan and other matters” while Tanya Snyder represented the club at league meetings “for at least the next several months.”

In her one handpicked interview with an ESPN softball-tossing talking head, Tanya Snyder proved herself the perfect caretaker for her husband’s leadership, criticizing the media’s coverage and then blaming the media for quoting her.

The league said it did not request that Wilkinson submit a written report, clearly not wanting any sort of paper trail. It would release what it wanted to release and nothing else. No damning details.

But the Gruden debacle brought to light that Wilkinson gathered about 650,000 emails during the investigation. Most are probably irrelevant. But surely there are some among them as damning to others as they were to Gruden and Allen. Does anyone think Allen was the only person working for Snyder who apparently shared Gruden’s views?

The NFL is this country’s wealthiest sports monolith because so many people watch its games — in person, on TV, on streaming devices, on apps. It is true that many of these fans could not care less about what kind of people own teams, work for teams or play for teams. As the late Al Davis, the Raiders owner who first hired Gruden as a head coach when Gruden was 34, used to say: “Just win, baby.”

That’s a mantra most fans live by. Did fans of the San Francisco Giants care that Barry Bonds was clearly using steroids when he hit 73 home runs? Nope. Did University of Florida fans care about the off-field conduct of Urban Meyer’s players while he was winning two national titles? Nope.

Do Washington Football Team fans care about Snyder’s consistently reprehensible behavior? Yes — because the team hasn’t won very much under his ownership.

That’s sports. But the media still has a responsibility to report the truth and uncover coverups — and the league has a responsibility to come clean about this franchise’s past.

NFL won’t release more from WFT investigation despite anger over offensive emails

All of the Wilkinson-acquired emails need to be released to the public, which the NFL has refused to allow. Somewhere in Wilkinson’s office is some kind of written report — or at the very least transcripts of the 150 interviews the NFL said she conducted. All of that needs to become public, too.

Wilkinson hasn’t spoken publicly since the NFL announced her findings — or, at least, a general overview of them — in July. Lawyers are rarely silent, especially when a case or an investigation is completed. Wilkinson, it should be noted, has an exemplary reputation among lawyers in the area. And yet not a word. You have to wonder whether the NFL insisted on some sort of nondisclosure from her — at the same time that it refused a written report.

No one is better than Goodell at wringing his hands and saying “woe-is-me” when the NFL is publicly embarrassed. His 2020 pseudo-apology to Colin Kaepernick, long after Kaepernick had been blackballed out of the league, was both eloquent and empty.

He’s terribly upset about the league’s lack of Black coaches — three men out of 32 jobs — but will he publicly blast his almost exclusively White ownership for consistently failing to hire qualified Black candidates? Put it this way: He has 44 million reasons (annually) to keep his mouth shut and wring his hands some more.

Now, though, the entire Washington debacle has gone well past the hand-wringing, let’s-put-a-different-face-out-front stage. Jason Wright, the new team president, is sharp and apparently well meaning, but most of his public comments simply parrot the Snyder/NFL “it’s all good now” stance. You can bet Tanya Snyder won’t be giving more interviews — even ones filled with hanging curveballs — anytime soon. Her husband will continue to hide out and laugh all the way to the bank.

It’s worth remembering that for years, Goodell defended Snyder’s insistence on keeping the team’s racist nickname. Even now, with the team facing a potential drug scandal in its training room and this week’s Post story on the attempt by Snyder’s lawyers to buy the silence of some of those who initially spoke out about the toxic environment, the commissioner has continued to sanction the ongoing coverup.

Bottom line: Snyder should be forced to sell, but there’s no way that’s going to happen on Goodell’s watch. We all know good old rich boys don’t do that sort of thing to one another. They just wait for the TV networks to continue to make them even richer while announcers blather on about what wonderful people they are.

If they’re half as wonderful as their paid marketers insist, here’s their chance to prove it: By making this investigation public — today. I’m not holding my breath.