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NFL wants to move past Washington’s scandal, House Oversight says not so fast

Democrats on the panel have slammed the NFL for a ‘lack of transparency’

An empty section of seats at FedExField is seen before a Washington Football Team game on October 25, 2020 in Landover, Maryland.
An empty section of seats at FedExField is seen before a Washington Football Team game on October 25, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images file photo)

As the National Football League seeks to close the book on the Washington Football Team’s many scandals, Congress has made clear the league won’t be able to change the subject just yet.

League officials have until Thursday to turn over documents related to a longstanding toxic culture within the Washington organization, according to a deadline set by the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Democrats on the panel have slammed the NFL for a “lack of transparency” and setting a “troubling precedent for other workplaces.” 

This isn’t the first time Congress has waded into a high-profile sports debacle. Whether the current effort leads to meaningful change, or fades away like some previous forays, remains to be seen.

The committee took its first step last month, sending a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell requesting a wide range of records, including all materials connected to the NFL’s internal investigation of allegations of “rampant sexual harassment” — an examination Goodell has strenuously worked to keep private even as explosive tidbits have emerged in leaks to the press.

“We have serious concerns about what appears to be widespread abusive conduct at the WFT and the NFL’s handling of this matter,” reads the letter, signed by Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who leads the subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.

“The NFL has one of the most prominent platforms in America, and its decisions can have national implications,” the letter notes, before outlining the exact scope of the document request and questions about how the NFL went about investigating the alleged abuse, including claims that cheerleaders were surreptitiously filmed while getting undressed. 

From here, the committee could convene a hearing — and that next step is “likely,” said Washington Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, an Oversight member. She cited the NFL’s history of secrecy as one reason Congress should get involved.

Goodell announced a $10 million fine for the WFT back in July, along with a reduced role for team owner Daniel Snyder. The commissioner last week addressed those who say the 100 percent owner of the team was not truly punished because his wife, Tanya Snyder, was named co-CEO. “I do think he’s been held accountable … and I think we did an unprecedented fine,” Goodell said. “Dan Snyder has not been involved with the organization for now almost four months.”

But critics have complained the commissioner did not release enough information about the findings of the league’s internal investigation. Lawyer Beth Wilkinson, who led the probe, reportedly spent months interviewing more than 150 people and collecting more than 650,000 emails —but Goodell has insisted he will not release any detailed summary to the public. 

“We still don’t know what the findings were, that’s why a hearing is likely,” Norton said. “But we are calling on the NFL to make those findings public right now.”

Public outrage flared this fall when The New York Times obtained some of the emails collected in the internal investigation, showing that on top of everything else, Jon Gruden, then an analyst for CNN, exchanged homophobic, racist and misogynistic messages with former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen. That revelation led Gruden to resign as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders last month.

In decades past, people might have accepted that an internal investigation at a private entity may stay within the company, said Geoffrey Rapp, a sports law professor at the University of Toledo. But after the release of Louis Freeh’s report of the child abuse perpetrated by then-assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and George Mitchell’s report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, those days are long gone.

“There’s an expectation that if you do one of these investigative reports, you’re going to share the results,” Rapp said. “And I think a lot of people are irritated that they’re not getting to see the results here.”

That may be especially true when the issue is workplace harassment and abuse perpetrated by men against women in a post-Me Too era. 

Dragging information into the public eye can be one outcome of a congressional hearing, but the stated purpose of the current Oversight push is to “help inform legislative efforts to address toxic work environments and workplace investigation processes,” according to Maloney and Krishnamoorthi’s letter. 

Congress has inserted itself into other sports-related matters before, including the high-profile allegations of steroid use in Major League Baseball and the NFL’s attempt to influence concussion research. Even if industry insiders tend to gripe that lawmakers just want to grandstand and make some headlines, multiple committees in Congress can claim to have jurisdiction over what goes on in professional sports.

“Congress’ powers, both for the polite investigation and the one backed up by subpoena power, are very broad, as long as Congress has some legislative purpose connected with its questions,” Rapp said.

Other committees that have been known to take an interest in athletics include House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation, since sports are considered interstate commerce.

The NFL did not respond to a request for details about what it has turned over to the Oversight panel so far, though Goodell told reporters last week that he would be “cooperative.” If the Democrats are not satisfied, they could theoretically use the panel’s subpoena power.

And a hearing could put one of Washington’s most bitter feuds front and center. Allen, the former team president, and Daniel Snyder had a falling out that culminated with the former’s firing. Should the committee hand Allen a subpoena, it would give the former WFT executive a platform to deliver some very public revenge.

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