The NFL Must Address Sexual Harassment

By Liam Wirsansky on July 20, 2020

For a long time, the NFL has a had a problem dealing with the sexual harassment of its teams’ cheerleaders and recent reports have raised concerns over the policies and procedures in place to ensure the safety and security of all of its employees. Only three days after announcing that the team would be retiring its name and moving into development to create a new one, the Washington Redskins gained national attention after a story by the Washington Post revealed allegations that were divulged by fifteen former female identifying employees of the team with claims of sexual misconduct and harassment dating back to 2006.

Accounts and testimonies from the women, as well as screenshotted text message conversations lay the foundation of the general environment that these women and many more had to deal with on a daily basis, all ranging from mild vagrancies to sexual harassment. One of the accounts of sexual harassment includes one reporter who still works for the team. Following the announcement of the allegations in the article, three of the figures implicated either retired or were removed from the organization. Prominent within the team’s ranks, those members included Alex Santos, the Director of Pro Personnel, and Richard Mann II, the team’s Assistant Director of Pro Personnel, who were fired, and the team’s longtime play-by-play voice broadcaster, Larry Michael, who retired.

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In response to the report, the Washington Redskins Organization announced in a statement that the team had hired Washington D.C firm Wilkinson Walsh “to conduct a thorough independent review of this entire matter and help the team set new employee standards for the future.” The team additionally added, “The Washington Redskins football team takes issues of employee conduct seriously. … While we do not speak to specific employee situations publicly, when new allegations of conduct are brought forward that are contrary to these policies, we address them promptly.”

While owner Dan Snyder is not reported to be directly involved in any of the incidents recounted, many remain doubtful that he is not guilty of gross negligence with many employees citing an extremely small and poorly equipped Human Resources Department that included only one full time employee before 2019. The leadership that has allowed this misconduct to manifest and perpetuate has put the stability of the franchise into question, with multiple minority owners exploring their options to sell their stakes in the team.

Responding to the scandalous report the NFL issued a statement that detailed their stance on the matter, while also remaining neutral in affirming that any immediate actions or punishments would be taken by the NFL in response. “These matters as reported are serious, disturbing and contrary to the NFL’s values,” the statement read. ”Everyone in the NFL has the right to work in an environment free from any and all forms of harassment.”

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In the wake of an ongoing struggle for transparency and accountability in workplaces nationwide, the response, or lack thereof from the NFL warrants a complete transformation in the system and rules that allow these instances to happen. This is not the first report of ongoing sexual misconduct of NFL cheerleaders, with testimonies from cheerleaders of the Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, and Cincinnati Bengals, all publicly reporting their stories in a New York Times Article published in 2018, that details the toxic and dangerous environment professional cheerleaders are forced to work under, as well as alarming stories and testimonies of what these women have gone through, and what others that are not able to speak up continue to go through out of fear for the security of their job and livelihood.

In the Washington Post article, only one woman, Emily Applegate, was able to give her testimony without an anonymous identity for varying reasons. In terms of employment, the cheerleaders know how selective of a position they are in and how expendable that makes them if they act out of turn, or report any unsavory behavior that would incriminate any prominent team officials. Many women are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements upon joining the team’s organization, already raising several red flags, but many are further threatened with the likes of retaliation when it comes to speaking up about their experiences.

In an interview Applegate offered some reasoning behind the silence, stating, “When it comes down to it, 98 percent of people make decisions on stuff like this based on needing to keep their jobs…which is why this stuff goes on for so long.”

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Teams are well aware of the power imbalance that they hold over employees and continue to selectively impose their will in a disreputable fashion because safety and security are not prioritized. While organizations are required to give their cheerleaders handbooks that detail the team’s core values and detail workplace behavior and procedures, many do not include any actual detailed information on how to handle or report harassment of any kind. This information also excludes fans, who are many times the perpetrators of these acts. These fans, sometimes in backrooms or team exclusive visits, are aided by the allowance of the team to put their cheerleaders in positions of danger and in close contact to these fans without necessary protections put into place.

The fact of the matter is that this rank treatment of cheerleaders, and more broadly female employees, has been going on since women entered the workforce, and this latest report against the Washington Redskins only contextualizes that the unequal and manipulative treatment of these women is a current problem that truly is a symptom of the greater underlying disease of workplace inequality that plagues our nation.

The thirty-two separate teams in the NFL have got a duty to actually provide a beacon and signal that all of their employees can trust and that will actually lay justice to these women’s claims by protecting their rights to safety and an accessible platform to report harassment. Having a system that is actually capable of holding people accountable can be the only thing to prevent further degradation to continue. That must start with the NFL by holding Washington completely responsible after the investigation is complete and by making efforts to implement policies that force teams to put these safeguarded measures into place.

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When all of this is said and done, the Washington Redskins have the chance to contextualize themselves as the standard in the NFL for social change by instituting rules and reform that shift the focus of the dynamics in the workplace, as well as ensure that valid accountability and safety standards are established. All of this along with a smooth name change that is somehow respectful may be a lot to ask of a team that’s been named the Redskins for over 80 years.

Liam Wirsansky is a Senior at Florida State University, pursuing a double major in Theatre and Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT). He serves as the President and Artistic Director of White Mouse Theatre Productions at FSU and is also the playwright of the plays, Moonchildren and Finding a New Year.

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