The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Capitol Hill, ex-Washington NFL employees levy new harassment claims against Daniel Snyder

Former Washington Commanders team employee Tiffani Johnston testified on Feb. 3 that team owner Dan Snyder harassed her at a team dinner. (Video: The Washington Post)
9 min

A former employee of Washington’s NFL team told members of Congress on Thursday that owner Daniel Snyder harassed her at a team dinner, putting his hand on her thigh and pressing her toward his limo, to throw the team’s workplace culture back into the public eye a day after the franchise unveiled its new brand.

Tiffani Johnston, a former cheerleader and marketing manager, was among six former employees who appeared on Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers about their experience working for the team, now named the Commanders, as the panel investigates the team’s workplace culture and the NFL’s handling of allegations of pervasive sexual misconduct at the franchise.

While much of what the former employees said has been previously reported, Johnston and another employee made new allegations involving Snyder, including that prostitutes were hired by team executives during a business trip for select employees at Snyder’s Aspen, Colo., home. Johnston’s allegation, which had not previously been shared with league investigators, led the NFL to say Thursday that it would consider further disciplinary measures.

The roundtable was part of an effort by Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to pressure the NFL to make public details of its investigation, led by attorney Beth Wilkinson, that the league has kept hidden.

Wilkinson’s probe was launched in 2020, after dozens of former employees detailed harassment to The Washington Post, and ended last year with a fine for the team and with Snyder’s wife, Tanya, purportedly taking over day-to-day operations for an undetermined period of time. But unlike in previous investigations, the league said it received no written report, and it made none of Wilkinson’s findings public.

The former employees who spoke Thursday took direct aim at the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell, putting pressure on him to release Wilkinson’s findings as the league prepares for the Super Bowl later this month.

“When the investigation of the air pressure of Tom Brady’s football concludes with a 200-plus-page report but the investigation into two decades of sexual harassment concludes with nothing, it shows the NFL’s complete lack of respect toward women, their employees and our culture as a country,” said Emily Applegate, a former marketing coordinator and ticket sales representative.

Johnston described years of sexual harassment by multiple team executives. Then she turned to Snyder, describing how she fended off the owner’s sexual advances during a work dinner. She did not say where or when the dinner was held. But during dinner, she said, she had to remove Snyder’s hand from her thigh under the table while trying to sustain business banter “to avoid a scene.”

After dinner, Johnston said, Snyder insisted she join him in his limousine for a ride to her car as he placed a hand on her back and pushed her toward the vehicle’s door. She declined but was able to break free of Snyder’s “grip,” she said, only because his attorney intervened and said, “Dan, Dan, this is a bad idea … a very bad idea, Dan.”

Johnston called her invitation to the dinner an “orchestration by [her boss] and Daniel Snyder to put me in a compromising, sexual situation.” She said she was later told to keep quiet about Snyder’s “advance,” adding that there was no one in HR to complain to.

Several former team employees testified before Congress on Feb. 3, describing widespread sexual harassment by owner Daniel Snyder and other top executives. (Video: The Washington Post)

Melanie Coburn, a former team cheerleader and marketing director for the squad, also levied a new claim involving Snyder, describing an employee “awards trip” to Snyder’s Aspen home. At a dinner featuring heavy drinking, she said, a colleague was “hazed to drink despite being a recovering addict.”

After returning to Snyder’s house, she said, she was told to go to her room in the basement and stay there. “I later learned from a colleague, who was there, that it was because the men had invited prostitutes back,” Coburn said.

In a statement Thursday, Snyder apologized for the culture at his team but called the claims made directly against him “outright lies.”

“I apologize again today for this conduct, and fully support the people who have been victimized and have come forward to tell their stories,” he said before touting the “real change” that has been made in the team’s workplace. But, he added, “While past conduct at the Team was unacceptable, the allegations leveled against me personally in today’s roundtable — many of which are well over 13 years old — are outright lies. I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, in a statement, said the league was “grateful” to the witnesses for coming forward.

“The NFL is reviewing and will consider Ms. Johnston’s allegations as we would any other new allegations regarding workplace misconduct at the Washington Commanders,” McCarthy’s statement continued. “We will determine any further action as appropriate.”

Thursday’s proceedings were riven along party lines, with Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) saying at the outset that the committee’s time and resources were more appropriately spent on the range of problems foisted upon Americans by the Biden administration, such as inflation, border control issues and a failure to hold China accountable “for covering up and unleashing covid-19 on the world.”

During questioning, each Republican echoed Comer’s talking points. While most expressed regret over the harassment the women said they suffered, some asked why the former employees hadn’t sought available remedies at the time, such as filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, hiring a lawyer or, in the case of criminal allegations, going to the police.

“Did you not know there is an EEOC? That there are federal laws that bar sexual harassment?” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) asked Coburn.

Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.) said “nobody is more disgusted than I am” over the treatment the women described. But, she said, “This hearing is a farce.”

At one point, the discussion grew so acrimonious that Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who took over the chair’s role midway through the two-hour roundtable, banged his gavel several times.

The meeting was the first phase of the panel’s investigation: collecting firsthand accounts of former team employees. Its next step is to evaluate the NFL’s handling of the team’s workplace.

Krishnamoorthi said afterward that while the NFL has provided the committee with numerous documents in conjunction with the probe, it has not provided documents related to Wilkinson’s findings.

The NFL’s refusal to disclose a detailed report, Krishnamoorthi noted, stands in sharp contrast to the league’s public reports summarizing investigations of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, the New England Patriots’ Deflategate controversy and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s misconduct toward female employees. “Why is the NFL holding back on this report?” Krishnamoorthi said.

Asked about the panel’s next steps, Krishnamoorthi said “everything is on the table.” That could include subpoenas to compel the production of documents and formal hearings, such as those the committee held on steroid use in Major League Baseball in 2005, when under Republican leadership.

Some who spoke Thursday were among the 42 women who in 2020 told The Post about being sexually harassed or verbally abused in the workplace. Others told their stories for the first time publicly. Each spoke of feeling betrayed by the NFL’s refusal to make public the findings of Wilkinson’s investigation, particularly given the personal risk and fear of retribution involved in speaking to Wilkinson’s team.

Brad Baker, who worked in the team’s video department, said he was interviewed by Wilkinson’s team for more than an hour and that many former co-workers spoke at greater length.

“We all participated because we thought the NFL wanted to know the truth,” Baker said. “We believed that the toxic workplace culture and the serious harm it caused would finally become public and that the investigation would end with some kind of report.”

Goodell has said Wilkinson provided only an oral report and cited former employees’ privacy rights as a reason for not disclosing the findings — a rationale the employees reject. They called on Congress to compel the NFL to make the report public and hold Snyder and the league accountable.

Rachel Engleson, a former marketing department employee, described fulfilling her dream of working for the team.

“I experienced many work ‘firsts’ there,” she said. “First bonus. First promotion. First office potluck. First employee hire. First threat of physical violence by a supervisor. First hostile work environment. First public humiliation. First sexual assault.”

She told Wilkinson’s team about her experience, Engleson said, calling sexual harassment “a pervasive part of the culture, an unavoidable rite of passage of being a woman who worked there,” which left her feeling “worthless.”

“NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell used us and the investigation to make it seem like he cared about this issue but then blamed us for not receiving or releasing a report,” Engleson said.

Among the five women and one man who spoke, several recounted ongoing trauma of their tenures — and fears of retribution from Snyder, who deployed private investigators to visit those he suspected of speaking to The Post or being part of what he believed was an orchestrated campaign to defame him.

Coburn described emotional damage suffered by members of the team’s cheerleading squad after learning that lewd outtakes from annual calendar shoots had been spliced together, rather than deleted, for a video montage of exposed nipples and pubic areas for team executives’ entertainment.

“I’ve cried with the women in the videos as they explained the horror of seeing themselves in what is essentially a soft-porn video, sound-tracked to Daniel Snyder’s favorite bands,” Coburn said. “These women remain traumatized.”

This story has been updated. Nicki Jhabvala and Mark Maske contributed to this report.

What to read about the Washington Commanders

Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Commanders owner Daniel 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.

Capitol Hill: 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 Snyder.

Kevin B. Blackistone: If NFL players care about social justice, why haven’t they rebuked the Commanders’ defensive coordinator?

Penalized: The NFL fined Commanders head coach Ron Rivera $100,000 and docked the team two OTA practices in 2023 for excessive hitting during their offseason program this year, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.