The NFL team in Washington has hired the law firm Wilkinson Walsh to review the claims of 15 women who, in an article published by The Washington Post on Thursday, said they were sexually harassed while employed by the team.
The article detailed numerous allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct and abusive behaviour by several team executives and football personnel over more than a dozen years. Male executives, the women said, commented repeatedly on their looks, sent them inappropriate text messages and pursued unwanted relationships.
After The Post contacted the team with the allegations, according to the article, its long-time play-by-play announcer, Larry Michael, retired, while Alex Santos, the director of pro personnel, and Richard Mann II, the assistant director of pro personnel, were both fired. All three were accused of sexual harassment by former team employees, according to the article.
Michael declined to comment about the reason for his departure before The Post’s article was published. He did not return a call for comment after the allegations against him were made public. Santos and Mann could not be reached for comment.
Dennis Greene, the team’s former head of business operations, was accused of sexually harassing women on the staff when he encouraged them to wear tight skirts and low-cut shirts, and asked them to flirt with people who own luxury boxes at FedEx Field, the team’s stadium in Landover, Md.
Greene, who resigned under pressure in 2018 after 17 years with the team, had been in charge of selling luxury suites and oversaw a program involving cheerleaders called ambassadors, who had been hired not to cheer, but solely for their attractiveness. He left the team in May that year, the day The New York Times published an investigation into the program. That report described him as examining each ambassador from head to toe as the group stood in an inspection line for him on game days.
Greene also oversaw a 2013 cheerleader calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica. The team collected the women’s passports at the start of that trip, depriving the women of their official identification. Several cheerleaders who were there told The Times that they were forced to act as escorts for male corporate sponsors and luxury box owners invited on the trip. Those sponsors and well-heeled supporters watched as the cheerleaders posed topless for the calendar shoot.
Beth Wilkinson, a founding partner of Wilkinson Walsh, confirmed in an e-mail that her firm would conduct “an independent review of the team’s culture, policies and allegations of workplace misconduct.”
An NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy, said the league had no comment about the internal investigation at the team.
In a statement, the team said it “takes issues of employee conduct seriously.” It continued: “While we do not speak to specific employee situations publicly, when new allegations of conduct are brought forward that are contrary to these policies, we address them promptly.”
The decision to begin an internal investigation comes at a turbulent time for the franchise, which has been embroiled in a public controversy over the team’s name and has had numerous staff members depart over the past year.
Under pressure from several of its largest corporate sponsors, the team said Monday that it would drop its logo and the name “Redskins,” an about-face by the team owner, Daniel Snyder, who for decades said he would never change the name, which has long been considered a racial slur by many.
Fred Smith, the chairman of FedEx and a minority shareholder of the football team, and two other shareholders have been trying to sell their stakes in the team, which amount to about 40 per cent, for months.
The team is in the process of choosing a new name and logo.
Several front-office executives have left or been dismissed from the team in the past year, some of whom were not accused of harassment in the article.
In October, the team fired Jay Gruden, the head coach who had a losing record since he took over in 2014. Gruden’s team had lost its first five games of the 2019 season.
Bruce Allen, who was hired as general manager in 2010 and made team president in 2017, was fired in December. Larry Hess, the team’s trainer for 17 years, was fired in late December. In January, the team let go of Eric Schaffer, its vice-president for football operations and general counsel, after 17 years with the club.Santos and Mann also left last week.
When the team’s 2019 season ended, Snyder hired Ron Rivera, the longtime coach of the Carolina Panthers.
“He is widely respected around the league as a man of great integrity and has proven to be one of the finest coaches in the country,” Snyder said in a statement.
Rivera has brought in new coaches and other front office personnel involved in evaluating players, a step common for incoming head coaches. But Rivera has had to make several key hires and sign free agents and rookies at a time when players and personnel have been unable to travel as usual because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re trying to create a new culture here,” Rivera told The Post. “We’re hoping to get people to understand that they need to judge us on where we are and where we’re going, as opposed to where we’ve been.”
ESPN relayed a statement from Rivera on Thursday evening, after The Post’s story was published, saying, “[The] biggest thing is we have to move forward from this and make sure everybody understands we have policies that we will follow and that we have an open door policy with no retribution. Plus my daughter works for the team and I sure as hell am not going to allow any of this!”
Eric Stokes, who ran college scouting for the Panthers when Rivera coached there, was recruited to replace Santos, and Jeff Scott, an assistant under Mann, was promoted.
Rivera also brought in Rob Rogers, who spent 25 years working on salary cap-related issues and contracts with the Panthers organization, to replace Schaffer.
Snyder has not hired a new team president or general manager.
It is unclear how long the law firm’s investigation will take. Wilkinson Walsh has represented the NFL in a lawsuit brought by DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscribers, and before founding the firm, Beth Wilkinson represented the league in the extensive concussion lawsuit.
New York Times News Service, with a report from Reuters