What to watch as Roger Goodell defends the NFL on Capitol Hill

The NFL commissioner voluntarily agreed to testify before House Oversight

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, shown here in Las Vegas during April’s draft, will appear virtually at Wednesday’s House Oversight and Reform hearing.  (David Becker/Getty Images)
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, shown here in Las Vegas during April’s draft, will appear virtually at Wednesday’s House Oversight and Reform hearing. (David Becker/Getty Images)
Posted June 21, 2022 at 1:18pm

Roger Goodell faces Congress this week, but lawmakers may not learn much from the embattled NFL commissioner as he defends the league and its handling of workplace misconduct.

“He’ll be very prepared, including well prepared when it comes to not answering questions,” said Geoffrey Rapp, a sports law professor at the University of Toledo.

Goodell voluntarily agreed to testify Wednesday morning before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is probing allegations of harassment at Washington’s football franchise and how the NFL dealt with the case. He’s expected to take tough questions from Democrats still seeking answers about an internal investigation that the league refuses to release.

“For seven months, the committee has been stonewalled by NDAs and other tools to evade accountability,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. “Mr. Snyder and Mr. Goodell need to appear before the committee to address these issues and answer our questions.”

Daniel Snyder, the Washington Commanders owner, has sent multiple letters declining the committee’s invitation to appear for now, the Washington Post reported.

Having a sports commissioner in front of Congress promises to be high political theater, even though Goodell will appear virtually. That’s especially true for America’s troubled king sport.

And though it may not satisfy lawmakers seeking new information, the hearing will accomplish at least two committee goals — getting Goodell on record and keeping a spotlight on the league’s refusal to disclose documents.

“One of the ways to try to get more information is to keep something in the public eye,” Rapp said. “It’s less of an opportunity, from the legislators’ perspective, to get to the truth than it is to keep asking the questions.”

Goodell’s testimony will likely stay surface-level when it comes to league practices and conduct, as he takes care to protect the league and its 32 owners who chose him as their public face. The NFL has provided Oversight stacks of records but so far declined to turn over much of an internal workplace harassment probe led by attorney Beth Wilkinson — the holy grail.

“The more that you resist giving that first report over, the more that people think there’s something in that report people want to see,” Rapp said. “I don’t know that interest will ever go away as long as Snyder owns the team and keeps running into trouble.”

Some of the only information from Wilkinson’s report to publicly surface — homophobic and sexist emails between a Washington team executive and then-commentator Jon Gruden — led to Gruden’s firing from his job as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

House lawmakers representing districts in the Washington area sent a letter to the NFL last week once again calling for the league and Commanders owner Snyder to hand over the report.

Both the attorneys general in Washington and Virginia have also launched their own investigations into the team.

This year Oversight referred to the Federal Trade Commission new allegations that Snyder’s team withheld profits from other league owners. A second investigation into the team’s culture of harassment was launched by the league after further accusations came to light in a February Oversight roundtable.

Marketing coordinator and cheerleader Tiffani A. Johnston said Snyder made unwanted sexual advances, placing a hand on her thigh and “aggressively” pushing her toward a limo. Another woman said Snyder tried to silence accusers.

The league has indicated it plans to release the findings of that investigation, which is being led by Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor and chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

After all those recent developments, Snyder’s absence on Wednesday will be glaring. His lawyers complained that the committee rejected his request to move the hearing “despite the fact that Mr. Snyder has a longstanding Commanders-related business conflict and is out of the country,” a letter obtained by Axios said.

The team, asked to comment on the nature of the business conflict, did not respond. Snyder maintains that many of the accusations leveled against him are baseless.

Republicans on the committee have argued Congress shouldn’t be probing the team and league in the first place and should turn attention elsewhere.

“From the beginning, committee Democrats weaponized their power and pushed a one-sided investigation into a private company with no connection to the federal government,” ranking member James Comer said.

Democrats on the committee refute the Kentucky Republican’s assertion, saying the probe is within the committee’s scope, which includes the laws that govern workplace safety and nondisclosure agreements.

On Friday, Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney unveiled two bills she said resulted from the committee’s probe so far.

The first builds on Congress’ work to overhaul nondisclosure laws and aims to prevent the use of NDAs to cover up misconduct. The second creates rules preventing employers from sharing photos without permission. Football team employees were accused of surreptitiously taking nude cheerleader photos at shoots and sharing them.

“I strongly believe that those responsible for the culture of harassment and abuse at the Washington Commanders must be held accountable,” Maloney said in a statement announcing the new legislation. “As lawmakers, we must use our legislative powers to protect other employees from this serious misconduct.”