The Washington, D.C., attorney general sued the Washington Commanders on Thursday, accusing the troubled NFL franchise of perpetuating “a toxic culture of sexual harassment.”
The team, owner Dan Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league itself were named as defendants, accused of “colluding” to keep the franchise’s poor treatment of female employees under wraps, Washington, DC, Attorney General Karl Racine said.
The lawsuit uses language commonly found in consumer protection claims, accusing the defendants of lying to Washington residents to protect their business.
“In order to sell expensive tickets and merchandise and maintain the team as a profitable part of the League, Defendants need the Team to inspire public confidence and fan loyalty,” according to the civil action.
“But Defendants repeatedly attempted to bolster such confidence and loyalty through artful deception to the detriment of District consumers.”
Representatives for Snyder and the Commanders said they welcomed an examination of the club’s practices.
“We agree with AG Racine on one thing: the public needs to know the truth,” team lawyers John Brownlee and Stuart Nash said in a statement.
“Although the lawsuit repeats a lot of innuendo, half-truths and lies, we welcome this opportunity to defend the organization — for the first time — in a court of law and to establish, once and for all, what is fact and what is fiction.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy denied the allegations in the suit and questioned Racine’s legal strategy of claiming consumer fraud.
“We reject the legally unsound and factually baseless allegations made today by the DC Attorney General against the NFL and Commissioner Goodell and will vigorously defend against those claims,” McCarthy said in a statement afternoon Thursday.
The Commanders play their home games at FedEx Field in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The team had played at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, but its last season there was in 1996.
The lawsuit, however, insists that Washington residents were victims, as the team aggressively markets its product to residents of the nation’s capital.
Racine, Washington’s chief legal officer, acts as the jurisdiction’s primary juvenile prosecutor.
“We’re bringing this lawsuit not as a criminal matter, because we don’t have criminal jurisdiction over adults,” he told reporters.
“We’re bringing this as a civil matter in a court of law with a fair process for the defendants so the public might have a sense of accountability. Again, no one is above the law.”
The NFL needs to be held accountable if it knowingly allowed any misdeeds by the Commanders to go on without punishment, he said.
“I think the public needs to know about an incredible product that I spend a lot of time watching, the National Football League,” Racine said. “It needs to know that when the National Football League tells you that ethics matters, that honesty matters, that treating people fairly in the workplace matters, that there will be accountability, that there actually is accountability.”
The NFL fined the team $10 million last year after a league probe led by Washington attorney Beth Wilkinson uncovered a “highly unprofessional” workplace at the club.
The league claimed that Wilkinson’s probe had total independence and that her investigators interviewed more than 150 current and former team employees.
But the new lawsuit claims Snyder worked behind the scenes to hinder Wilkinson’s probe, which has yet to be released in its entirety.
Snyder is alleged to have sent private investigators to witnesses’ homes to intimidate them, “engaged in abusive litigation to prevent witness participation” and “offered additional money to former employees who had previously settled claims against Snyder,” the civil complaint says.
“I am repulsed by the conduct at issue,” Racine said. “The idea of intimidating victims, the idea of trying to scare them into backing down on their allegations, is outrageous, and it calls on all of us to do what we can to bring accountability.”
The probe ultimately didn’t hold Snyder and the team accountable, the lawsuit says.
“Taken together, District consumers were left believing that Defendants would do all they could to preserve the integrity of the Wilkinson Investigation, and that its findings would restore their trust and assurance concerns regarding continued support of the franchise,” the lawsuit says.
“In reality, the picture Defendants painted for District consumers was terribly misleading, particularly during the Investigation, while consumers continued to purchase tickets and merchandise with the understanding that a thorough, unbiased investigation was under way.”
McCarthy, the NFL spokesman, defended Wilkinson’s findings and the league sanctions against Snyder and the team.
“The independent investigation into workplace misconduct at the Washington Commanders was thoroughly and comprehensively conducted by Beth Wilkinson and her law firm,” McCarthy said.
“Following the completion of the investigation, the NFL made public a summary of Ms. Wilkinson’s findings and imposed a record-setting fine against the club and its ownership.”
Lawyers for the team also agree that the Commanders and Snyder have taken responsibility for previous bad workplace acts.
“Over two years ago, Dan and Tanya Snyder acknowledged that an unacceptable workplace culture had existed within their organization for several years and they have apologized many times for allowing that to happen,” the lawyers said.
Racine said the lawsuit would go forward even if Snyder ends up selling the franchise.
The team last week announced it had hired Bank of America “to consider potential transactions,” a move widely seen as Snyder’s first public step toward possibly selling the famed franchise.
The lawsuit didn’t name a dollar figure sought from the defendants. But Racine did vow to bring defendants to testify under oath.
“This case is going to require deposits, sworn testimony and accountability from some of the most powerful men and organizations in the United States of America,” he said.
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