The House Committee on Oversight and Reform hosted a roundtable hearing today regarding the ongoing sexual harassment and sexist culture at the Washington Commanders (formerly the Washington Football Team, and before that, a racist slur), organization under the leadership of owner Dan Snyder. Five women and one man who had worked for the football team in different roles and for different time periods throughout the past two decades, from marketing to video production to client relations to cheerleading, testified before the committee on the culture of sexual harassment that was present “every single day” in their workplace.
The courage of these former employees to come forward was admirable — sharing and reliving their stories and experiences yet again in front of other people, despite the shame and embarrassment that they said they felt, moved several of them to tears. Several of the women were very young when the harassment began, in their first or second job out of college, and while the harassment of the cheerleaders has been the most well-documented and was arguably the most abusive, their testimony made it very clear that there was not a woman in the organization who was exempt from objectification and bullying from their male superiors.
“We were exploited over and over,” said Melanie Coburn, a former cheerleader turned director of marketing who left the organization in 2011. “I came forward at great personal risk.”
Coburn described several instances of Snyder’s direct harassment of the cheerleading team, including parading them out in front of friends and clients onto the field and telling them to “turn around slowly” so that he and his guests could watch. Rather than choosing the cheer roster based on their talents and experience, Snyder requested a binder of the team and cut ten veterans, Coburn said, “because they weren’t the prettiest.”
“People were hired and fired based solely on looks,” she said.
The most disturbing story, of course, was told repeatedly by several of the witnesses from different perspectives — that Snyder had requested unedited videos and images from a photo shoot for a cheerleaders’ calendar that pictured several cheerleaders’ breasts and genitals.
“They were zooming in on [cheerleaders’] private parts and keeping the cameras rolling during costume changes,” Coburn said. “It was a soft-porn video set to Dan Snyder’s favorite bands.”
Tiffani Johnston, another former cheerleader and marketing manager, described her direct encounters with Snyder and other executives. She said that she was asked to wear “low-cut blouses” to meetings with potential suite owners, and that Snyder himself had sat next to her at a work dinner and placed a hand on her thigh, and then attempted to push her into his limousine later in the night before his attorney intervened — the attorney also wrote a letter to the committee corroborating Johnston’s account.
Ana Nunez, former coordinator of business development, and Rachel Engleson, a former director of marketing and client relations, both spoke about the pervasive objectification and harassment that they received from their male superiors and colleagues. Emily Applegate, a former marketing coordinator, said that she was harassed on a daily basis by the chief marketing officer for the Washington Commanders, and was also told to wear tight outfits to events “so the clients would have something to look at.”
As for Snyder’s claims that he was a hands-off boss — nearly every witness disagreed with that assessment, saying he was a “control freak” and involved in every level of operation within the franchise. Each witness also explicitly called for the NFL’s full findings to be released to the public, expressing their disappointment and anger with Roger Goodell’s attempted cover-up of the situation. Goodell had stated that he wasn’t releasing the investigation in order to protect those who came forward — which these women’s demands made clear was not a valid excuse.
The stomach-turning part of this whole thing — even more than the testimonies, which is really saying something — was several of the Committee Republicans’ responses to the hearing. Dismissing them, calling the hearing a “farce,” going on about how there were much more important things that the Committee should be discussing (Joe Biden, inflation, and border control were the top three choices, of course. Masks “made in China” apparently also deserve a hearing over victims of systemic sexual harassment and assault). Their reactions continued to demeanwomen who had already faced years of workplace abuse, and highlighted why so many victims hesitate to come forward or don’t come forward at all. Several Republican members, including Yvette Herrell and James Comer, repeatedly refused to acknowledge the significance of the witnesses’ experiences and the legitimacy of the hearing.
The worst comment of all, though, was South Carolina representative Ralph Norman telling the witnesses, “You know what’s going to come of this hearing? Nothing.”
The same thing they were told by HR, by superiors, by the NFL, by everyone along their path — just when the victims think they might finally have some sort of victory, Norman tells them that their efforts will be fruitless. The cruelty in that statement was shocking, but not as shocking than what came next — when he made each witness state “exactly what they want Congress to do once we get the report.”
You read that right — the member of the House of Representatives made the witnesses tell him what Congress should do after telling them that “nothing” would come of the report being released, nor of the hearing that they were actively participating in. It would be hard to read that as anything but a complete and total dismissal of the victims’ experiences with Snyder and Washington executives.
“Pass legislation so that this can be taken to the courtroom,” Applegate responded. “A lot of people go through the justice system and don’t see justice when it comes to sexual harassment and assault.”
Snyder received the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for creating this culture and harassing his female employees — a $10 million fine and voluntarily stepping away from day-to-day operations, handing the reins over to his wife.