The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protecting women, a partisan divider. Ain’t that America?

Former employees of Washington's NFL team speak to the media after appearing Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
5 min

Much like rot, accountability starts at the top.

It begins at the head of Washington’s NFL franchise, with the man who, a former employee told Congress on Thursday, allowed his home to be turned into a pleasure den during an out-of-town work trip, and who allegedly placed his hand on another female employee’s thigh during a work dinner.

And it begins at a roundtable on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers divided themselves by party lines and discounted their power to do anything to stop this kind of corruption.

Much like Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, the Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform are refusing to stand up as leaders to ensure accountability.

If there were any, Snyder long ago would have been removed from the franchise. And if every member on that committee Thursday believed in protecting female employees from intimidation and unwanted sexual advances, they would unify by demanding the NFL release the report on Washington’s toxic workplace environment that was completed last year.

But what should have been a black-and-white issue on workplace safety devolved into a conflict between red and blue.

The female former employees of Washington’s NFL franchise who shared their firsthand stories of sexual harassment on the job were younger then. Some were fresh out of college. They were unaware of taking their complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) suggested they should have.

The women are older now — and sharper. Melanie Coburn sat in front of congressional members — some of the words of her statement highlighted in yellow — and alleged, in a steady voice, that Snyder once held a drunken party for employees at his Aspen, Colo., home and invited over prostitutes. And Tiffani Johnston shared publicly for the first time her allegation that Snyder inappropriately touched her thigh at a work dinner, then later placed his hand on her lower back while encouraging her to take a ride in his limousine. Snyder denied both women’s accounts Thursday.

To these women, accountability remains absent because the man responsible for dragging the team’s culture into the gutter remains at the top. The name of the team can change, and the Commanders can pretend that new crest of theirs holds depth and dignity befitting a 90-year-old franchise. But no amount of glossy rebranding matters. As long as Snyder’s in charge, the rot still exists.

“It was the culture he created. It was an abusive one. He berated the male employees when they didn’t do, what he considered, a good job. And then it was just the sexual culture that he created,” Johnston said, emphasizing the pronoun. “Every day, day in and day out.”

Pressuring the NFL to release the ugly bits of the investigation could force Snyder to step down. Congress could do that, or at least try. And the women, now knowing their strength and no longer harboring fear of harassment inside Snyder’s frat house, came to Congress seeking help.

They expected too much.

“Today is when the journey of truly holding these people accountable begins,” former employee Emily Applegate said. “Today is when Democrats and Republicans can come together and ensure that what we experienced will not happen anywhere else throughout this country.”

But the Republicans who showed up listened to this testimony long enough only to take their turns repeating their two-pronged strategy: fanning culture-war flames and excusing themselves from any oversight of a private business.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) expressed his version of empathy for these women by sputtering out a strange story that conflated Carolina Panthers players kneeling for the anthem and workplace misconduct by the former team owner.

“I had heard about Dan Snyder for a long time. I quit going — I took, my actions against my team, when — the Carolina Panthers, I’m from South Carolina — when they stopped standing for the flag, when the owner had all these charges, you know what I did? I just didn’t go. I stopped. So, that’s the actions I took.”

Norman, following the same script of the Republican colleagues who spoke before him, then spent the majority of his three minutes logging the items the committee should be focusing on: the border crisis, dead police officers, Nancy Pelosi. But for this matter, Norman said, it’s out of their purview.

“You know what’s going to come of this hearing?” Norman told the women. “Nothing. I wish I could say something differently. But we’re having it. You’re all victims of it, and it’s not right.”

Leaving just 53 seconds for the “victims” to respond, Norman asked what they wanted Congress to do. Johnston made it simple.

“To get involved,” she said. “To not allow this to happen, starting with the Washington football team, throughout the entire country at the workplace. For every female that has experienced this that we can hopefully prevent for tomorrow.”

Anything can be under Congress’s purview if lawmakers want it to be. In 2005, this same committee, known as the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held hearings about steroid use in baseball. Then, a member deemed the hearing was vital to address “important questions for baseball, its fans and the nation.” The issues of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct — with a high-profile NFL franchise front and center — deserve the same oversight.

By holding the NFL and its franchise in Washington accountable, Congress could go a long way in setting a standard against all the rich and untouchable bosses who think they can wield their power against employees, especially women. But as Thursday’s hearing showed, not even this can yank the curtain closed, just for a moment, on our nation’s political theater.

What to read about the NFL

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The latest: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced that the committee intends to issue a subpoena to compel the testimony of Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.

Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Snyder of asking for sex, groping her and attempting to remove her clothes, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Post. A team investigation concluded the woman was lying in an attempt to extort Snyder.

Civil suits settled: Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has reached settlement agreements in 20 of the 24 active civil lawsuits filed against him by women who accused him of sexual misconduct, the attorney for the women announced.

Jerry Brewer: “The Browns were prepared for initial turbulence, but they assumed they were getting Watson at the end of his troubles. Now his disgrace is their disaster.”

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