• Politics

The NFL Keeps Fumbling and Congress Keeps Punting

9 minute read

Fans of the National Football League (NFL) have long complained about the organization’s history of fumbling its public relations.

In 2009, the organization allowed an Atlanta Falcons player, who had pleaded guilty to participating in an illegal dog-fighting ring, to sign with a new team after his release from prison. In 2014, it initially benched a Baltimore Ravens running back for just two games after video emerged suggesting he had beaten his then-fiancé in an elevator. The same year, NFL brass issued a tepid, one-year suspension to a Minnesota Vikings player charged with felony child abuse for whipping his four-year-old with a tree branch.

But as the league grapples with recent allegations that it created a culture in which teams’ leadership attempted to rig the outcome of games, bribed a coach, racially discriminated, and made efforts to cover up a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, Congress is offering to referee. In the past two weeks, House Democrats have called for the NFL to reform its hiring practices, suggested it may subpoena NFL documents for an internal investigation into toxic workplace culture, and threatened to re-examine the structure of sports television rights, which has long helped the NFL’s bottom line.

During a House Oversight Committee roundtable meeting on Feb. 3, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, condemned the NFL’s “sexism and race problem” and lamented “the lack of diversity among football’s coaching and executive ranks.”

The big question is whether Congressional attention this time around will actually move the ball on any of these issues.

The most recent scandal

Multiple House members called for quick Congressional action this month after former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit claiming that multiple NFL teams racially discriminated against him.

Flores, who is Black, also claims that the owner of the Miami Dolphins attempted to bribe him to purposely lose games in order to boost the teams’ draft position and tried to coerce him into breaking recruitment rules—only to fire him in January after he lead the team to their first back-to-back winning seasons in nearly twenty years.

In the 58-page filing, Flores alleges the New York Giants interviewed him solely to satisfy the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview people of color for vacant head coaching and senior football operation gigs. (Before Flores interviewed with the Giants, he received a text from Patriots coach Bill Belichick who told Flores he had heard from the Giants that Flores was “their guy.” Belichick seemed to have intended to text that to another person named Brian—Brian Daboll, who ultimately got the job.) The suit additionally claims the Denver Broncos used Flores to satisfy the Rooney rule with no intention to hire him, claiming the then-general manager of Broncos showed up late and hungover for Flores’ 2019 interview.

Rep. Bobby Rush, a 15-term Democratic Congressman from Illinois and a co-founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, wrote a Feb. 2 letter to House Subcommittee Consumer Protection and Commerce chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, requesting that the subcommittee, of which Rush is also a member, “swiftly hold a hearing” on systemic racism in the NFL. “While 70% of NFL players are Black, it is unacceptable and reprehensible that, after the recent firing of Houston Texans Head Coach David Culley and Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores, we are left with only one Black head coach in the NFL out of the 32 head coaching positions.” Rush wrote. “Incredibly, there has never been a Black owner of an NFL team.”

The NFL’s leadership diversity pales in comparison to the diversity of other top sports leagues: 12 of 30 National Basketball Association teams have Black head coaches and two of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams have Black managers. “The NFL has to be held more accountable as a business that has enormous impact on the economy and the culture of our nation,” Rush tells TIME.

Schakowsky’s office tells TIME the congresswoman is considering ways in which the subcommittee “can take action with respect to these very troubling allegations.” Rush adds that he intends to follow up with Schakowsky this week to “impress upon her the importance of the timeliness of this hearing.”

A culture of sexual harassment

The House Oversight Committee’s roundtable Thursday centered on the NFL’s handling of complaints that the Washington Commanders (formerly the Washington Redskins until 2020, and then the Washington Football Team until last week) fostered a culture of sexual harassment.

The roundtable followed a series of 2020 Washington Post articles relaying cringe-inducing anecdotes. The team’s assistant director of pro personnel, Richard Mann II, told one female staffer he had discussed with a colleague whether her breasts had been surgically altered. He told another female staffer to expect an “inappropriate” hug. “Don’t worry that will be a stapler in my pocket, nothing else,” the Post reported Mann said.

A subsequent article detailed how and why lewd outtakes, including inadvertent displays of nipples, from cheerleader photo shoots were compiled into video reels that were allegedly created for top Commanders staff, including team owner Daniel Snyder. A third article revealed the team paid a $1.6 million settlement in 2009 over a former female employee’s allegation of sexual misconduct that she claimed took place on Snyder’s private plane.

Witnesses who spoke during the Oversight roundtable meeting rehashed some of their experiences outlined by the Post’s reporting, but also presented new information. Former cheerleader and marketing manager Tiffani Johnston told the Committee that Snyder put his hand on her thigh under the table at a team dinner, and later, pressed his hand into her back to coerce her to ride in a limousine with him.

Despite launching an internal investigation into its culture that the NFL subsequently took over, the NFL never released a report on the Washington team’s workplace culture. In July 2021, the NFL released a brief summary of its findings, stating without specifics, that the workplace was “highly unprofessional,” featured frequent instances of “bullying and intimidation,” and that these issues were “compounded by inadequate HR staff.”

Former Washington Commanders’ staffers and some members of the Oversight Committee called the summary inadequate. “The [Washington Commanders] and the NFL, among the most prominent platforms in America, should be setting a higher standard for others, not avoiding accountability and not covering up sexual harassment,” Illinois Democrat Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said at the roundtable.

When the NFL released its summary, Commissioner Roger Goodell said it did so in lieu of a formal report because the league sought to protect the anonymity of those who came forward. But several of the people who participated in the investigation, including former Washington Commanders’ marketing director Rachel Engleson said during the roundtable that they “wanted and expected a report.”

Krishnamoorthi and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney sent a letter to Goodell on Friday, calling on the NFL to produce the findings of the internal investigation and the documents that supported its conclusions so the Committee “can evaluate any workplace misconduct that occurred and the extent to which the NFL may have attempted to conceal those findings.”

‘Whatever steps are necessary to get to the truth’

In theory, the House Oversight Committee could use its subpoena power to compel people at NFL to provide documents and engage in interviews about any subject—including sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and coercion within the ranks. A committee staffer granted anonymity to candidly discuss possible next steps tells TIME that its investigation into the NFL’s “toxic workplace culture” is ongoing and that “all options are on the table. The Committee will take whatever steps are necessary to get to the truth.”

Some members of the committee are also considering legislative solutions, addressing, for example, the role of non-disclosure agreements in preventing women from speaking out, and the ways that Congress regulate how workplaces handle harassment claims.

During the roundtable, Wasserman Schultz seemed to suggest amending a 1961 law that allows the NFL to circumvent antitrust laws, enabling the NFL to sell television rights to games as a collective unit. Wasserman Schultz asked one of the witnesses, Melanie Coburn, whether she believed that Congress should be in the “business of protecting an organization that puts the interests of billionaire owners over hundreds of women who experienced harassment and abuse.”

Coburn, a former cheerleader and marketing director, replied: “Money and power is what rules the NFL. Unless someone steps in and holds them accountable, nothing will change.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly says changing the NFL’s antitrust exemption is just a first step. “I’m sure there are a myriad [of] rules, regulations, laws and protocols that could and should be examined, with respect to the NFL, to ensure that the kinds of experiences we heard [Thursday] are never again tolerated,” the Virginia Democrat told TIME.

A history of doing not much

If history is predictive, NFL fans eager for Congress-mandated change shouldn’t hold their breaths for forward progress.

Take, for example, the dust-up over studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition increasingly diagnosed in people who have endured repeated hits to the brain. It has so far been diagnosed in more than 300 former NFL players.

In 2012, the league agreed to donate millions to the National Institutes of Health to research the condition, but ultimately backed out of funding a project over the NIH’s selection of a scientist who had criticized the NFL.

Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee called out the NFL for attempting to “use its ‘unrestricted gift’ as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics” in a 91-page report in 2016, but no actual punishment stemmed from the alleged impropriety. Taxpayers ended up footing the $16 million bill for the research. (The NFL broadly rejected the report’s claims.)

Congress may follow the same playbook in response to the more recent allegations: Blowing the whistle—like an NFL referee did when he (erroneously) thought star Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow stepped out of bounds during a touchdown pass against the Las Vegas Raiders on Jan. 15, or when Congress wrote a lengthy report on CTE research funding—but ultimately not issuing any significant punitive penalties.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com