Following an explosive report from the Washington Post on the NFL’s Washington franchise, it appears possible under league bylaws that team owner Dan Snyder could be forced out.
Fifteen women came forth and described a culture in the organization, spanning all the way up to management, of sexual harassment and misconduct that reached upper management.
Whether Snyder will be forced out is entirely another matter.
Although Snyder himself was not accused of any direct wrongdoing in the report against any women, he was accused in the report of belittling Dennis Greene, the team’s former president of business operations, who also happened to be among his former employees named as being abusive.
Additionally, Snyder’s team failed to provide any kind of reporting system for accusations of harassment. The team has employed one full-time human resources manager and hadn’t implemented any formal reporting protocol at what was described as a workplace that harbored “relentless sexual harassment and verbal abuse.”
The one accuser named in the report, Emily Applegate, said it was implied to her and other women that reporting any type of malfeasance could result in them losing their job.
“It was the most miserable experience of my life,” Applegate, now 31, said of her year working as a marketing coordinator for the club, which she left in 2015. “And we all tolerated it, because we knew if we complained — and they reminded us of this — there were 1,000 people out there who would take our job in a heartbeat.”
The NFL issued a statement early Friday, which in part indicated that the league would base its discipline on the findings of outside counsel, D.C.-based lawyer attorney Beth Wilkinson from Wilkinson Walsh, the team hired to review the matter.
“Washington has engaged outside counsel to conduct a thorough investigation into these allegations,” the statement reads. “The club has pledged that it will give its full cooperation to the investigator and we expect the club and all employees to do so. We will meet with the attorneys upon the conclusion of their investigation and take any action based on the findings.”
The question now becomes whether there are enough grounds to force Snyder, who has owned the franchise since 1999, of his ownership post. Or whether there is enough support within the league to do so.
Those are two different matters.
Little NFL precedent for this level of move
Expelling a team owner isn’t simple. But theoretically, could it happen?
The short answer appears to be yes. The long answer: Any attempt at removing Snyder from the post he has held since 1999 might result in a protracted legal battle.
There is no precedent for an NFL team owner being removed, like the way the NBA did with former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson put the team up for sale in December 2017 when Sports Illustrated reported on some of Richardson’s alleged poor treatment of female and minority employees. It’s unclear if there was behind-the-scenes pressure from the league office, other franchise owners or even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but shortly after the report came out Richardson sold his team willingly, landing a massive profit in the process.
Is Snyder’s reported lack of oversight serious enough to warrant removal from the league? That will be the NFL’s acid test, as the move would be unprecedented, and the team owner was not directly implicated by any of the 15 women for his actions against them.
There are mechanisms and avenues for the league to pursue that path if there is enough support.
NFL bylaws spell out how an owner can be removed
According to the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws, Article 8.6, Goodell as commissioner has the power “to hire legal counsel and take or adopt appropriate legal action or such other steps or procedures as he deems necessary and proper in the best interests of either the League or professional football.”
Additionally, in Article 8.13 (Disciplinary Powers of Commissioner), the bylaws state that if Goodell “decides that an owner ... has either violated the Constitution and Bylaws of the League or has been or is guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League or professional football, then the Commissioner shall have complete authority to” take one of several courses of action against them.
Among the disciplinary options include fines (up to $500,000) and/or a suspension.
There’s additional power for Goodell to go above and beyond those measures in exceptional cases. It would require Goodell referring the matter to the league’s executive committee, which is made up of one representative — either a team owner or a top officer — from each of the league’s 32 clubs.
From there, assuming at least three-quarters of the membership (24 or more teams) concurs, the committee theoretically could mandate that Snyder’s interest in the team be canceled or forfeited and order that his shares in the team be sold within 120 days of that decision of his expulsion.
Would there be support to remove Snyder?
This is where it gets tricky.
There’s no way to downplay the report. If accurate, it paints a picture of a culture that needs massive changing. This is a terrible look for the franchise — and also for the NFL.
The league has had a spotty record on directly handling matters in this sphere in the past, and we don’t know how the NFL might have conducted the Richardson situation had the former Panthers owner refused to sell or attempted to dig in while defending himself.
In essence, Richardson quickly announcing he was selling the team nearly three years ago saved the league from having to publicly force his hand. So we don’t know what Goodell or other franchise owners were prepared to do to remedy that situation.
Those events occurred near the peak of the “Me Too” movement, one that appears to have permanently left its positive mark on how businesses — even the NFL — consider such matters. The grounds for firing or forcing out people for their sexual mistreatment has shifted.
But the NFL likely would have to be firm in its belief that Snyder was the driving force behind Washington’s day-to-day operations, that he was fully aware of what the women have claimed and that he allowed it to go unchecked.
Some might argue a culture change in Washington won’t completely happen. But that’s going to be a steep climb for some of the people in power to take.
The burden of proof appears reasonable for Snyder to suggest that the team firing two scouts and the team’s announcer prior to the Post story dropping is an indication that Snyder or some other current members of his leadership were not aware (or not fully aware) of the workplace conditions described. At the very least, the team’s proactive approach appears to work slightly in his favor.
And then there’s the NFL’s club owners, who might not be as tightly knit a group as they once were, but it’s still an elite collection of mega-rich and powerful men who often will scratch each others’ backs — or look the other way — when it comes to matters that don’t affect, say, competitive balance.
It might not be right, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
Snyder might not be the most respected owner in the lot, but he’s amassed power in league spheres. He appears to have an unlikely ally, too, in the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, as Jones and Snyder seemed to be on the same page when the league was discussing Goodell’s future in 2017 and whether his eventual lucrative contract extension would be completed duly.
Jones played the role of the hawkish team owner, taking on Goodell publicly and questioning his worth, with Snyder reportedly working the back channels to build support against the commissioner’s pricy contract. Some say the two rival franchise owners built their alliance up during that time. Jones still wields power and influence in this league.
The mechanisms are in place to remove Snyder. But it feels unlikely to happen given what we’re looking at.
So whether it’s a lack of a smoking gun against Snyder himself being directly responsible for the employee culture, or if there are not enough team owners to directly pin this on him, it feels most likely that Goodell will hand down the stiffest fine possible, perhaps with other discipline for the team.
Bad things reportedly have happened under Snyder’s roof. But his exit as franchise owner doesn’t seem imminent, barring new information that more directly ties the allegations to Snyder personally.
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