The attorney general for the nation’s capital has filed a lawsuit against the Washington Commanders football team, accusing the organization and its leaders of deliberately misleading District of Columbia residents about the “toxic” and “broken culture” that pervaded the organization in order to keep making money from the fans’ loyalty.
Karl Racine, an elected Democrat and Attorney General for the District of Columbia, announced Thursday that he had filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the Washington Commanders, team owner Dan Snyder, the National Football League (NFL), and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
According to Racine’s office, the defendants engaged in “artful deception” in order to mislead D.C. residents as to the truth about alleged “sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and pervasive toxicity” within the Commanders.
The lawsuit stems from the results of an internal investigation stemming from media reports in 2020 that “revealed a severely broken culture — created and encouraged by long-time owner Dan Snyder — in which women were openly objectified, and fear and intimidation reigned.”
The Commanders had retained D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson to conduct the investigation into the allegations. Publicly, Racine alleges, the Commanders “promised full cooperation” with the investigation, and they promised results the fans could trust.”
According to the complaint, the NFL took over the investigation in order to “give consumers confidence that it would be free from interference by Snyder and the Team.”
According to the complaint (paragraph numbers omitted):
With the investigation under the NFL’s control, Defendants’ statements gave District consumers the overwhelming impression that Snyder and the Team would fully cooperate with the investigation and that the public could trust the investigation’s results because they would ensure it would be thorough and unbiased.
But behind the scenes, Defendants engaged in a course of conduct that was directly contrary to their public statements. Among other things, the NFL entered into an agreement that functionally gave Snyder veto power over what parts of the investigation would be made public, allowed Snyder and the Team to wage a campaign to block Wilkinson from accessing witnesses and documents, and gave the public no full accounting of the investigation’s results. Taken together, Defendants’ actions reflect conduct contrary to what they had communicated to the public, undermining confidence in the results—confidence that Defendants assured would be restored by the investigation.
During the investigation, Snyder allegedly “waged an interference campaign to cover up years of harassment,” Racine’s office says. “And the NFL let him do it, betraying fans’ trust by enabling Snyder to have a say at the end of the investigation into him and the Commanders.”
Per a summary of the complaint, provided by Racine’s office:
While the investigation was ongoing, Snyder and the Commanders intimidated witnesses by sending private investigators to their homes. The NFL knew of this behavior and nevertheless entered into a “Common Interest Agreement” with the team that provided Snyder even greater access to witnesses and the investigative team, further frustrating the effort to uncover the truth. Their actions aimed to deceive fans so they would continue to purchase tickets, merchandise, and entertainment, and continue to increase profits for Snyder, the Commanders, and the NFL while also evading accountability.
Snyder and the Commanders “lied to consumers when they denied knowing anything about the long-standing hostile work environment and culture of sexual harassment,” Racine’s office says, adding that not only was Snyder “aware of the toxic culture within his organization — he encouraged it.”
The Commanders’ “toxic culture was created at the top, with Snyder at the center of much of the misconduct: he had already settled multiple sexual harassment claims by employees, he ordered the creation of voyeuristic videos of partially nude cheerleaders, and he settled an allegation that he personally sexually assaulted a team employees,” the complaint says.
According to Racine, the team and its leadership kept the truth from D.C. residents in order to keep the cash flowing.
“The Team knew its fans would not continue to financially support businesses that knowingly tolerated this misconduct,” the lawsuit says. “Snyder thus denied that he or Team management had any knowledge of the misconduct to reassure consumers, but these denials were false.”
According to Racine’s office, the Commanders are valued at $5.6 billion, while the NFL is a “roughly $18 billion industry.” They both “make money off of fans’ ticket sales, and purchases of merchandise and entertainment that is targeted to DC residents.”
“The Washington Commanders actively view District consumers as their fanbase, as evidenced by marketing campaigns to align the team with the city, including selling jerseys with the District of Columbia flag on it and other merchandise with ‘D.C.’ clearly visible,” Racine’s office says.
“The Commanders and Dan Snyder lied to DC residents about what they knew about a toxic culture of sexual harassment and then they entered into a secret agreement with the NFL and Commissioner Goodell that kept the truth from DC residents — all in an effort to protect their profits,” Racine said in a press release. “In DC, you can’t lie to consumers to enrich yourself and get away with it. That’s what this lawsuit is about: standing up for DC residents who were deceived and misled. No one—not even Mr. Snyder—is above the law.”
Representatives for the Commanders say that Snyder and the team are looking forward to clearing their names.
“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,” Commanders counsel John Brownlee and Stuart Nash said in a statement. “We agree with AG Racine on one thing: the public needs to know the truth. 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.”
The NFL rejected the allegations in Racine’s complaint outright.
“We reject the legally unsound and factually baseless allegations made today by the D.C. Attornevy General against the NFL and Commissioner Goodell and will vigorously defend against those claims,” Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s Vice President of Communications, said in an email to Law&Crime. McCarthy noted that following Wilkinson’s investigation into the Commanders, the NFL publicly acknowledged the findings and “imposed a record setting fine against the club and its ownership.”
The lawsuit is seeking an injunction and an unspecified amount in financial damages.
You can read the complaint here.
[Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images]
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