The NFL could face an investigation into allegations that female employees were harassed and discriminated against after attorneys general in six states sent a letter to the league’s commissioner Wednesday saying they had “grave concerns” about the claims.
Spearheaded by New York Attorney General Letitia James, the coalition, which includes her counterparts in Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington, said it was looking into a “workplace culture that is overly hostile to women” and “will use the full weight of our authority to investigate and prosecute allegations of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation by employers throughout our states, including at the National Football League.”
The letter refers to a New York Times investigation in February, when 30 former league employees alleged that they were subjected to several inappropriate actions, including having been forced to watch a 2014 video of former running back Ray Rice knocking out and spitting on his then-fiancée. (Domestic violence charges against Rice were dropped.)
Other women described experiencing “unwanted touching from male bosses, attending parties where prostitutes were hired, being passed over for promotions based on their gender and being pushed out for complaining about discrimination,” the attorneys general said in the letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“All of this is entirely unacceptable and potentially unlawful,” they added. “The N.F.L. must do better — pink jerseys are not a replacement for equal treatment and full inclusion of women in the workplace.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement that the league shares the commitment “of the attorneys general to ensuring that all of our workplaces — including the league office and 32 clubs — are diverse, inclusive and free from discrimination and harassment.”
He said the league had made “great strides over the years” but that “like many organizations,” it has “more work to do.”
Several women’s rights organizations said a reckoning was long overdue.
“This reprehensible behavior has been ignored for far too long,” Christian F. Nunes, the president of the National Organization for Women, said in a statement. “For decades, the NFL has made it clear how little they value women by responding to countless reports of domestic violence, discrimination and toxic misogyny — in front offices and off the field — with performative, empty gestures meant to distract from their complicity.”
Emily Martin, the vice president for education and workplace justice of the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization, said a culture of harassment and discrimination “starts at the top.”
“The letter from Attorney General James suggests that the NFL has long perpetuated a culture that belittles and demeans its female employees,” she said. “We are glad to see these state attorneys general coming together to investigate further and seek systemic solutions.”
The NFL faces other investigations, including a congressional inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace culture under Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.
At a hearing in February, six employees testified that they were subject to unwanted touching and harassment from Snyder and that he had a secret “soft porn” video made of cheerleaders.
Snyder has denied the allegations.
“While past conduct at the Team was unacceptable, the allegations leveled against me personally in today’s roundtable — many of which are well over 13 years old — are outright lies,” he said in a statement after the hearing. “I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person.”
The NFL conducted a 10-month investigation led by lawyer Beth Wilkinson, which ended in the league’s imposing sanctions. The findings were not made public.
NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson was accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women in 2020. A grand jury declined to indict Watson, who faces civil lawsuits brought by his accusers, who allege misconduct during massages, which sparked an internal investigation by the NFL that is ongoing.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing.
Allegations of racial discrimination have also plagued the league. Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a federal lawsuit in February alleging racial discrimination, accusing the league of living “in a time of the past” and paying lip service to minority hiring. Flores alleged that the league does not hold true to its policy to consider diverse applicants.
“We will defend these claims, which are without merit,” the NFL said in a statement.
The attorneys general have urged other possible victims of racial or gender discrimination by the NFL to come forward and vowed to move aggressively against the league if it does not “do better.