ASHBURN, Va. — It was made clear by the NFL on Thursday that Dan Snyder had built a terrible workplace culture during his first 20 years as Washington Football Team owner. It was described as “toxic” by attorney Beth Wilkinson in her independent investigation after interviews with more than 150 current and former employees. Nobody should be surprised by that. It wasn’t just about sexual harassment; it was about many employees — male and female — describing Washington’s culture as one of fear.
You can debate whether the NFL’s punishment of a $10 million fine handed down Thursday was enough. Multiple league sources had said throughout the past year — since the first Washington Post story published last July detailing sexual harassment allegations — they did not think there would be enough to force Snyder to sell. Some wondered if he’d be suspended.
Make no mistake, while others were accused of sexual harassment and lost their jobs, the culture of a team starts at the top. That’s Snyder. It goes back to who you hire, who you listen to and how you treat all of your employees.
“I have learned a lot in the past few months about how my club operated, and the kind of workplace that we had. It is now clear that the culture was not what it should be, but I did not realize the extent of the problems, or my role in allowing that culture to develop and continue. I know that as the owner, I am ultimately responsible for the workplace. I have said that and I say it again,” Dan Snyder said in a statement.
Lawyers representing 40 former Washington employees criticized the NFL for choosing to protect Snyder and ignoring requests to make the report public, calling the fine “pocket change.”
“This is truly outrageous and is a slap in the face to the hundreds of women and former employees who came forward in good faith and at great personal risk to report a culture of abuse at all levels of the team, including by Snyder himself,” lawyers Lisa Banks and Debra Katz said in a statement.
“The NFL has effectively told survivors in this country and around the world that it does not care about them or credit their experiences.”
The fine is larger than what others have received. Former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was fined $2.75 million for sexual harassment issues, though it was announced after he had sold the team. Nobody else within the NFL has been fined more than $1 million. The Denver Broncos were fined twice in a span of four years (2001 and 2004) for salary-cap violations, the New Orleans Saints were docked $500,000 for setting up a bounty program in 2012, and the San Francisco 49ers were also fined $500,000 for violating the league’s corporate ownership policy in 1990, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
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The money from Washington “will be used to support organizations committed to character education, anti-bullying, healthy relationships and related topics,” the league said Thursday.
In addition, co-owner Tanya Snyder, who was also named the team’s co-CEO this week, will take over the day-to-day duties and represent the franchise at league functions for the next several months. The more Dan Synder remains in the background, the more this team and organization has a chance to become a stronger one. He can focus on finding a stadium site and building it. He obviously will be included in picking a new team nickname.
Mostly what Snyder will be forced to do is alter the way he does business. Many former longtime employees, from the front office to business operations, are skeptical he’ll ever fully change. Maybe they’re right. And maybe the changes that have already taken place were designed only to show the league how much they had changed. Certainly some will call them disingenuous. But they were made, they were necessary and they have a chance to work. All of that is a net positive.
The changes that were implemented in the past year — the focus on hiring a diverse staff — had long been suggested by those close to Snyder. Those suggestions were not followed. They have been in the past year. That’s good; former employees said more diverse voices needed to be included — whether diverse in gender or race, or simply voices from outside the Ashburn, Virginia, bubble. And that now exists.
It’s not as if Snyder had not hired good people in the past. The past regime had plenty. They just didn’t have power or the loudest voice; that belonged to others, including Snyder himself. But he also wasn’t embarrassed quite like this. It’s one thing to lose games — the franchise is 149-202-1 with two postseason victories in 22 years under Snyder. It’s another to have dignity stripped and toxic issues made public.
It’s a good chance for those who are with the team, starting with team president Jason Wright and coach Ron Rivera, to have their voices heard. They have what others lacked in the past: true power. Plus, an owner who knows he will be watched more closely than ever before.
It has led to a workplace that has a chance to be much better, and a team that might be as well. The NFL took into account Rivera and Wright’s presence when deciding punishment.
“These are the people that need to lead both by example but also create an atmosphere that’s comfortable for everyone,” said Lisa Friel, the NFL’s special counsel for investigations. “So I would say it started. The change has started with Coach Rivera being brought in. I know from both reporting out of Beth and having spoken to people there myself that him being … the head coach there, really gave people a different feeling about what the culture might become going forward, and certainly Jason. Jason Wright is a man of incredible integrity and quality and the things that we’re already aware that he has done there.”
She pointed to Wright encouraging employees to cooperate with the investigation. Wright made it clear he wasn’t afraid of the findings because he could control only what was going to happen moving forward. He was hired in August 2020, so the issues pre-date him and most current employees.
When Washington was winning Super Bowls, it did so under owner Jack Kent Cooke, who hired the right people — good people — and listened to them.
If Snyder wants to turn this into a positive, he’ll follow that blueprint.
The skeptics will remain. How long any change by Snyder lasts remains anyone’s guess. If the team builds on a 7-9 playoff season, then it can last a while.
Let others now in place focus on creating the right culture. The league just said Snyder was unable to do so. Whether this provides closure for anyone remains to be seen. But the organization can now move forward and put an ugly chapter in the past.