The whispers started Sunday.
Bad news was coming about the NFL franchise in D.C., NFL reporters and local media said. “I’ve been told it has to do with the front office firings of Alex Santos and Richard Mann II,” wrote one. “The warped and toxic culture of the Washington Football Team is about to be exposed in a sickening fashion,” wrote another. “It’s not going to be pretty,” said a third; “What’s coming,” said a fourth, “is disappointing and sad.”
Those comments were, if anything, an understatement. The darkness lurking in the offing was finally revealed Thursday, when The Washington Post published an exposé featuring more than a dozen former Washington employees and multiple female reporters who said they were sexually harassed and emotionally abused while working for or covering the organization. Rife with accounts of senior male staffers making vulgar comments to and about women and propositioning or inappropriately touching them, the report depicts a culture of rampant sexism, where many of the violations happened out in the open.
One former staff member, Emily Applegate, described then–team president Bruce Allen witnessing her “sobbing at [her] desk several times every week” and doing nothing; on one occasion, Applegate said Eric Schaffer, then the team’s general counsel and senior vice president, offered to assist her in filing a complaint after witnessing abuse, but did not file one of his own—in spite of a team policy mandating that any witness to such an incident report it. There was little or, more often, no attempt by team leadership to address the incidents or to prevent future ones from occurring.
The initial response to the revelations by fans and media alike was horror and disgust. But surprise? Not exactly.
In a way, these latest horrible revelations felt like more of the same from a club that has disappointed over and over. This, after all, is the team that allowed suite holders and sponsors to exploit its cheerleaders. The team with an owner who sued a reporter for daring to recount his bad acts, who has famously nickel-and-dimed fans, who proudly clung to a racist name for decades, and whose sudden change of heart this month just so happened to come as this damning report neared publication. Of course it was this team that facilitated a toxic culture, that it was there—in Landover and Ashburn—where employees were abused, demeaned, and left sobbing outright at their desks. That it was in this team’s orbit that reporters, including Nora Princiotti, a former Washington Times writer who now works for The Ringer, and The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker, who were attempting to do their jobs would instead be publicly humiliated, as Walker says she was when Santos, then the director of pro personnel, told her she had “worn the f---” out of her jeans.
The details of the report are revolting and infuriating, and the team must both thoroughly account for what happened and change the organizational culture to ensure such acts will be prevented in the future. This week, Washington hired Beth Wilkinson of the law firm Wilkinson Walsh to conduct an independent review of the franchise’s policies. Wilkinson has defended a number of high-profile figures who have faced accounts of sexual misconduct, among them Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. Now she’ll be tasked with combing through the actions of Santos and Mann, who as the team’s director and assistant director of pro personnel, respectively, were described as repeatedly harassing junior staff members (the two were fired by the team days before the Post story was published); longtime announcer Larry Michael, who was described as having a “penchant for off-color commentary about female colleagues” (he announced his immediate retirement on Wednesday); and the members of the organization’s staff who saw these actions and said nothing. (Two other male executives described as harassing or verbally abusing female staff members had previously departed the team.) On Thursday, newly hired head coach Ron Rivera issued a statement saying he had been brought to the team in part to “change culture.” He had better, and burn the old one to the ground.
Dan Snyder has owned the team since 1999, and he lurks in the background of the report: He is not directly linked to the many stomach-churning tales of sexual harassment, though it is difficult to believe that he could have been unaware of a franchise culture that was so toxic that the Post reported that female employees tended to pull newly hired women aside and tell them to avoid a central staircase where male staffers were known to look up the skirts of any women overhead. Snyder was described as verbally abusing a male employee, mocking him for having been a cheerleader; on one occasion, according to the Post, Snyder “ordered him to do cartwheels for their entertainment.”
Snyder deservedly makes for a ready villain. From suing a 72-year-old grandmother who said she could no longer afford her season tickets on up, he is an easy figure for NFL fans to loathe. And so it would be easy, too, to write off the horror that went down under his watch as just another uniquely Snyder atrocity. Should the league—which said in a statement that the revelations are “serious, disturbing and contrary to the NFL’s values” and that it would consider disciplinary action—take the extreme (and admittedly unlikely) step of forcing him to sell, it may only further the perception that once Snyder is gone, the problem is solved.
But while the specifics in Washington are galling, this type of behavior is not unique. In the hours after the exposé was published, numerous women who work or have worked in sports posted on social media that they, too, had experienced situations like the ones described in the story. Their experiences spanned years, teams, and leagues. Many pointed to the same issue raised by the team’s employees: That if they had come forward, they would have faced retribution. And as Applegate told The Post, they are told they should feel lucky to be there at all.
It’s no secret that the infrastructure around sports is heavily male-dominated, from front offices—in Major League Baseball, just 30 percent of employees are women—to newsrooms. At senior levels, the skew is even more drastic: In the NFL, where 35 percent of the league’s workforce was female in 2018, the number drops to 29 percent in roles of vice president or higher. Women are disproportionately junior, lower-salaried, “less essential.” They are also, by definition, disproportionately dependent on other people—ones with more power, more seniority, more standing—to help them. To speak up.
Consider the timeline. Michael had been with the team for 16 years. Santos had been there for 13; Mann, nearly a decade. Many of the abuses described during their tenure happened in plain view of colleagues and peers. How much went unaddressed? How much more pain were they allowed to inflict during that time?
Another question, perhaps, is this one: Is there any franchise where revelations of a toxic, abusive, or sexist culture would surprise you?