By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the NFL wants you to know something, it gives you endless reams of paper with as much information as possible printed on it.
When the NFL doesn’t want you to know anything, it acts very, very differently.
Based on the events of Thursday afternoon — a Thursday afternoon before a major holiday weekend, mind you — we can reasonably deduce that the NFL does not want us to know any details about the sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, and any other details about the toxic workplace culture that existed within the Washington Football Team organization for years.
The league released a statement on Thursday, noting that the team will pay a $10 million fine, with the money going to “organizations committed to character education, anti-bullying, healthy relationships and related topics.” WFT owner Dan Snyder also vowed to take steps toward improving the culture within the organization.
In a sense, it was a significant moment. Rich, powerful people have not had to reckon with being held responsible for past misdeeds too often throughout history. And while $10 million means little to Snyder, the shame of this ordeal is at least something in the way of being held accountable. Not much, no. But something.
But then Lisa Friel — the NFL’s special counsel for investigations — spoke to the media and revealed a jaw-dropping bit of information: There will be no written report detailing exactly what went on in the Washington Football team organization.
There will be no details shared by the NFL or by Beth Wilkinson. All of her investigating was relayed by word of mouth to commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the folks in charge at the NFL. And that is as far as her report will make it.
Wilkinson, an investigator chosen by the Washington Football Team to investigate the Washington Football Team, spent a year conducting interviews of more than 150 people. Based on her investigations, the NFL determined that “for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional. Bullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace.”
The picture painted by the NFL was indeed troubling.
“Ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues,” the announcement stated. “In some instances, senior executives engaged in inappropriate conduct themselves, including use of demeaning language and public embarrassment. This set the tone for the organization and led to key executives believing that disrespectful behavior and more serious misconduct was acceptable in the workplace. The problems were compounded by inadequate HR staff and practices and the absence of an effectively and consistently administered process for reporting or addressing employee complaints, as well as a widely reported fear of retaliation. When reports were made, they were generally not investigated and led to no meaningful discipline or other response.”
The NFL was willing to admit this much — a good sign that the details and specifics of the behavior was significantly worse than that vague description would indicate.
And despite the extensive work of Wilkinson, she was not asked by the NFL to compile any written reports throughout her investigations. As a result, the only record of her investigation is in the memory of those in the NFL offices who heard her oral reports.
Lisa Friel, NFL Special Counsel for Investigations: "We do not have a written report from her [investigator Beth Wilkinson.]" Wilkinson gave the league a series of oral reports, but the NFL says it has no written report and thus won't have one to release.
— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) July 1, 2021
Despite numerous allegations coming out in recent years on this precise matter, the NFL also did not seek to address or atone for any of those instances.
The NFL's Lisa Friel, special counsel for investigations, says Beth Wilkinson reported her findings "in oral briefings" to the league.
The league will not speak to individual allegations, and says it's important to protect the confidentiality of those who spoke. https://t.co/IVAKA1k6NK
— michael phillips (@michaelpRTD) July 1, 2021
Confidentiality concerns could certainly be lessened by redactions of names and dates and specifics. A league that’s long had a credibility issue in the department of fair treatment of women hiding behind confidentiality concerns can be considered suspicious at best.
Now, based on the NFL’s decision, those allegations remain just that: allegations. Snyder and the WFT can dismiss them as unfounded accusations made through the media for perpetuity.
All of those women spoke out publicly and then agreed to be interviewed by Wilkinson, only to be ultimately ignored by the NFL. Their stories remain suppressed. The men who are responsible for what the NFL determined to be “highly unprofessional” involving “bullying and intimidation” as well as “sexual harassment and a general lack of respect”? They all seem to be skating, with the NFL’s tacit blessing.
Put another way, the NFL’s observable mantra seems to be quite simple: We want to make it look like we’re taking it seriously, without actually taking it seriously.
Of course, these matters are quite serious. And while the NFL spent much of its 2,000-word announcement playing up the changes that have been made and will be made within the WFT organization, it all rings hollow. None of those changes were made because Snyder and the organization realized they were wrong. The changes happened because people bravely spoke up to expose a powerful organization.
In December, The Washington Post reported that a former female employee was paid $1.6 million in a confidential court settlement, after she accused Snyder of sexual misconduct. She had previously been fired by the team.
Snyder called that report a “hit job.”
Clearly, Snyder has shown an intense desire for the details of events to remain confidential. By not releasing a public report, the NFL seems happy to accommodate him in that effort.
When the NFL hired Ted Wells to investigate alleged bullying by Richie Incognito and members of the Miami Dolphins, his public report was 144 pages long.
When Wells investigated allegations of air pressure manipulation in footballs, his report was 243 pages long.
When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hired Robert Mueller to investigate … NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to determine what Goodell knew in the Ray Rice domestic violence incident, even that sham of a report was released to the public. (A neat and tidy 96 pages.)
The NFL’s investigation into years of harassment and a toxic workplace culture in Washington resulted in a written report of zero pages.
Wilkinson must have found some bad things if the NFL wanted no written record of any of it.
Those previous investigations included private emails and text messages sent from involved parties. Incognito’s entire text history essentially became public record, as did the communications of two lower-level equipment staffers in the Patriots’ organization. Though Roger Goodell didn’t turn over his personal cell phone for the Rice investigation — he’d consider Tom Brady to be guilty for doing the same, mind you — his work devices were scanned for communications, and Mueller quoted several emails from NFL employees in his report.
Those were all cases where the NFL could manage the message. And it did.
The same could be said about allegations against Giants kicker Josh Brown. Despite establishing a new domestic violence policy in the wake of the grotesque mishandling of the Ray Rice matter, Goodell and the NFL didn’t enforce that mandatory ban on Brown, despite Brown admitting to physically and emotionally abusing his ex-wife.
After Greg Hardy had been suspended after disturbing allegations of domestic violence were made public, he sought a reinstatement hearing with the NFL. Goodell didn’t attend the hearing. Goodell also didn’t fight back when a Goodell-picked arbitrator reduced Hardy’s suspension from 10 games to four games.
This is the same Goodell who admitted to not reading security reports on Ray Rice, not taking notes during a meeting with Ray Rice, failing to make an effort to obtain security footage of Ray Rice, and ignoring witness statements on Ray Rice.
After that fiasco — which, really, should have cost Goodell his job — the commissioner vowed to “be better.” While this current matter with the Washington Football Team involves sexual harassment instead of domestic violence, the end result is a strikingly similar message from the NFL. The league is willing to listen to women … but only so much.
While the $10 million fine and list of organizational changes make for a succinct and clean headline, the NFL’s decision to protect the accused and keep all allegations confidential shows that in terms of righting wrongs, the NFL is still not willing to go the full mile. The league will admit that some wrongs occurred. The NFL will issue a punishment for those wrongs. But if the league doesn’t really want you to know what those wrongs were exactly, then the league is simply never going to tell you.