The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL’s silence about Daniel Snyder says plenty about its principles

Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder before a 2019 preseason game. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

At this point, the bigger problem for the NFL is not the stinking algae bloom that is Daniel Snyder but rather the strong whiff of its own toxic cleansers. Commissioner Roger Goodell, you see, knows the Washington Football Team owner was accused of sexual misconduct on his plane and settled a claim over his alleged behavior. Yet the league office has said nothing, not to the team’s legion of victims of sexual harassment, nor to the public that foots the NFL’s bills. If silence can have bad breath, Goodell’s reeks.

You could pass out from all the cross-pollutants, Snyder’s noxiousness combined with the ammonia smell of a coverup. But the biggest stench of all is the odor of Goodell’s false, rotten-toothed assurances, which were merely a front for the owners’ collective contempt for both ordinary people and congressional leaders, whom they treat as stupidly cow-placid enough to swallow this nonsense while paying for their public sewage lines.

There is an old business saying that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. The NFL never wanted to measure the leaking ooze that is Snyder, or to seriously address the origin of the chronic sexual harassment inside the Washington organization. Presumably that’s because no other owner can withstand such scrutiny, either.

Daniel Snyder pledged support for the NFL’s investigation. His actions tell a different story.

The promises of “transparency” were all bamboozlement. What a con. You hire a former federal prosecutor, Beth Wilkinson, to do a supposedly “independent” investigation of Snyder’s sordid workplace, then tell her not to document anything. Question: For exactly how long have league officials known about the accusation against Snyder, and what were the specifics and merit of it?

Because according to Washington Post reporting, Wilkinson learned almost immediately upon launching her investigation last summer that a female employee had brought a complaint directly against Snyder in 2009. Though Snyder called the accusation “meritless,” the woman hired powerful attorney Brendan Sullivan, who obtained a $1.6 million settlement in exchange for her silence. Snyder’s lawyers were accused by the woman’s lawyer of attempting to enforce that nondisclosure agreement, according to reporting by The Post’s Will Hobson and Liz Clarke, and to prevent the accuser from speaking with Wilkinson, even while releasing other employees from their NDAs. Despite those alleged efforts, which Snyder’s lawyers deny, Wilkinson managed to interview the 2009 accuser.

What did she learn? What did the league know about the alleged incident, and when? We’re still waiting to find out.

Remember when Goodell’s office published a 243-page report on “Deflategate” and declared Tom Brady culpable simply for getting rid of a cellphone? Yet the league has refused to publish a single word of what Wilkinson found and continues to balk at fully cooperating with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which wants to know more about the league’s apparent protection of Snyder.

The NFL is used to changing shape conveniently, depending on what it seeks to hide from or extract from you: Sometimes it poses as a private trade association, sometimes as a quasi-civic trust that pledges to operate in the public interest. But the Snyder investigation demonstrates that NFL owners are just a pack of Caligulas who reserve the right to act in any imperious manner they please while demanding antitrust protection from Congress and payouts from cities.

They’ve got some nerve. It’s estimated taxpayers have contributed nearly $7 billion to the cost of modern NFL stadium-builds, not to mention the utilities, security and infrastructure that support their operations. As author Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out, the owners use stadiums at huge public expense — and then privatize all the profit and hide their dealings.

Daniel Snyder pushed back as the NFL probed. Here are takeaways from The Post’s reporting.

This is how owners treat you: like saps and marks. “Public handouts for modern professional football never end and are never repaid,” Easterbrook wrote. “In return the NFL creates nothing of social value — while setting bad examples.”

But at this point the NFL league office is worse than a bad example. It’s another abuser. The league asked the victims to relive their debasement to an investigator with a supposed promise of legitimate inquiry — when in fact it was using them all over again, this time as convenient cover.

With the latest revelation of how the NFL is gaming its audience, it’s imperative that Congress step in. As Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said, “The NFL is perhaps the most visible workplace among workplaces, and it powerfully influences the way that, in my opinion, men and boys think about sexual harassment and the way that employers think about sexual harassment.”

The league’s handling of the Snyder scandal has only reinforced the notion that to report sexual harassment is a dead-end game in which the rich abuser always wins. The only thing NFL owners have ever feared is government interference; it’s the only thing that can pry open their dealings.

The blank space, where a full accounting of the Snyder “investigation” should be, gets more curious all the time. It’s a statement in and of itself, one that says the league would rather deal with criticism over its corrupt silence than with full exposure. You can suppose only that what it’s hiding must be worse.