The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL shield never stopped protecting Daniel Snyder

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at an event last month in Munich, Germany. (Steve Luciano/AP)

In the nation’s most powerful sports institution, Daniel Snyder cannot persist as a tormentor without an NFL culture that aids and abets his worst impulses. The Washington Commanders owner hasn’t changed because no one in its accountability-skirting system forces him to change, not when there are so many gifted enablers and fixers available to obstruct proper scrutiny. Of them all, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is the most egregious — and highly paid — offender.

Goodell, the supposed guardian of NFL integrity, sat before Congress during a virtual testimony in June and stayed loyal to the league’s most indecent partner. He had an opportunity to be forthright and disclose the ongoing transgressions of Snyder simply by answering direct questions from the legislative body. Instead, Goodell upheld an ownership bro code that eventually will ruin the very game he thinks he is protecting.

Aside from a more detailed look into Snyder’s alleged sins, the misleading testimony from Goodell stood out Thursday after a review of the 79-page report from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. After a 14-month process, the committee released the findings of its investigation into the Commanders’ disturbing workplace environment, divulging fresher information about all Snyder did to disrupt several truth-seeking processes, including accusations of witness intimidation, shadow investigations by his own private investigators and information leaks to the media — most notably, the emails in former team president Bruce Allen’s inbox that led to former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s ouster — to scare his enemies.

Daniel Snyder gave evasive, ‘misleading’ testimony, House committee says

Some of the report was revelatory. Most of it merely provided deeper confirmation of how detrimental to the league Snyder has been. But the congressional committee also went a step further, looking at the problem more broadly and highlighting the league’s involvement in minimizing a scandal that left many women without a sense of justice for the abuse they suffered while working for a toxic organization. Congress painted Goodell and the NFL as culpable for concealing the initial workplace investigation of attorney Beth Wilkinson, which did not result in a written report, and characterized the league as complicit in Snyder’s lack of sincere cooperation with the committee.

The report causes you to think back to June 22, when Goodell focused on the Washington organization’s transformation as if to say that all of Snyder’s troublemaking was in the past.

“To be clear,” he said that day, “the workplace at the Commanders today bears no resemblance to the workplace that has been described to the committee.”

It was a very lawyerly way of hiding behind recent positive organizational changes such as the hiring of a respected coach, Ron Rivera, to oversee football operations, and a Black team president, Jason Wright, to run the business side. All the while, as the report summarized, the NFL knew Snyder was going full Snyder in the background, sending private investigators to the homes of former employees and leaking information to attack Allen. But Goodell was too concerned with the NFL’s image to depict the situation accurately when he testified remotely during the same Capitol Hill hearing in which Snyder refused to participate.

Disingenuous defenses have been a staple of Goodell’s handling of Snyder since July 2020, when The Washington Post wrote its story on the franchise’s history of sexual harassment and misconduct during the owner’s tenure. Goodell used the same rhetoric in February 2021 when he commented on the Wilkinson investigation.

“To me, the important thing in the context of this is that the Washington football club has made a lot of changes already,” Goodell said. “They asked for this type of review. They asked for the recommendations on this.”

Daniel Snyder, Bruce Allen testified for hours. Here’s what they said.

In reality, Snyder was about to begin a process of negotiating his punishment to a laughably soft $10 million fine and an agreement to lay low and allow his wife, Tanya, to run the show publicly for a while. And the House committee said it has information suggesting the Commanders, who paid half of the $10 million to charities, may have paid some of its penalty this way “to take tax deductions for its charitable contributions and payments to the League, thereby conferring the Commanders a benefit.”

As a leader, Goodell looks weak, and that’s even after considering that the commissioner is employed by the league’s 32 ownership groups. If you understand how the decentralized NFL functions, then you know a commissioner is only as powerful as the bosses allow him to be. But he also is considered the primary steward of the game’s best interests, and that responsibility dictates inevitable run-ins with the owners. In his 16 years as the commissioner, Goodell has had a few of them, mostly over punishments that hinder a franchise’s chances to win. There was the time he got into it with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady over the air in footballs. There was the suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, which irked owner Jerry Jones.

But compared with the Snyder scandal, those could be categorized as small-scale NFL stuff despite the enormous reaction. Standing up for women mistreated in the workplace should be a fundamental value that someone who talks incessantly about the NFL’s shield is prepared to fight for, especially when the opposition is Snyder, a man who has done little besides mooch off the league’s outrageous profits for more than two decades.

Goodell didn’t have it in him, though. He chose to perpetuate the lie that a Snyder-owned organization can redeem itself by working around him. And he had the nerve to utter the false notion to Congress.

In a statement, committee chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said, “Our report tells the story of a team rife with sexual harassment and misconduct, a billionaire owner intent on deflecting blame, and an influential organization that chose to cover this up rather than seek accountability and stand up for employees.”

With Republicans taking control of the House, the probe is expected to end with this report. But Snyder’s woes aren’t over. He still faces multiple investigations. Jim Irsay, who owns the Indianapolis Colts, is part of a growing ownership faction that thinks there may be grounds to boot Snyder from the league. And Snyder might do them a favor: He’s looking into selling the franchise, perhaps at a record price in the $7 billion range.

It’s possible that he could be gone in 2023. But Goodell isn’t going anywhere, and his feckless leadership will be the enduring legacy of this fiasco. He has spent nearly two years avoiding the ugly truths, insisting the franchise is different and running interference for the worst owner in the NFL. He may have thought he was protecting the league from further embarrassment, but all of the misdirection has torn at his credibility again. And the NFL is a lesser league because it has enabled such a noxious environment to continue.

When Snyder finally asks for his golden parachute, Goodell will be beside him, making sure it fits just right. It won’t matter that Snyder tried to sic a private investigator on the commissioner. He works in service of all owners, even the ones willing to bludgeon his reputation. Goodell made $63.9 million last season, but the job has cost him things he can’t buy.