The Ray Rice scandal in 2014 was supposed to be a watershed moment for the NFL, where the league would finally get serious about investigating and punishing those accused of illegal or violent conduct.
The NFL hired a former sex crimes prosecutor. It paid for white-shoe attorneys to investigate incidents and promised full cooperation. The NFL defined standardized punishments for a wide range of violent offenses. It even kicked former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson out of the club in 2018 for a pattern of sexual harassment.
But the NFL has seemingly forgotten anything it learned with the shameful way it handled the investigation into the Washington Football Team. Roger Goodell took out his broom this past week and attempted to sweep the entire episode under the rug.
Almost a year after hiring attorney Beth Wilkinson to investigate Washington’s culture in the wake of 40 women alleging a pattern of sexual harassment, the NFL announced the results Thursday: a $10 million fine for the organization (plus the NFL’s seven-figure legal fees), 10 workplace recommendations to improve training and diversity, and an indefinite removal of owner Daniel Snyder from the team’s day-to-day operations, with responsibilities transferring to his wife, Tanya.
“The commissioner concluded that for many years the workplace environment at the Washington Football Team, both generally and particularly for women, was highly unprofessional,” the NFL said in a statement. “Bullying and intimidation frequently took place and many described the culture as one of fear, and numerous female employees reported having experienced sexual harassment and a general lack of respect in the workplace.”
But more noteworthy is what the NFL did not provide Thursday:
▪ A mention of any of the several dozen sexual harassment allegations against the franchise, which include cheerleaders accusing the team of forcing them into compromising situations, and a $1.6 million sexual misconduct settlement from Snyder to a former employee in 2009;
▪ A formal suspension of Snyder;
▪ Any sort of report from Wilkinson detailing her yearlong investigation into the team’s workplace culture that included interviews with more than 100 people.
In short, the league buried it. It released its findings on a Thursday afternoon before July 4, and hoped that no one would realize that it let Snyder and his organization off the hook.
Robert Mueller’s report into Rice punching his girlfriend in an elevator was 96 pages long. Ted Wells’s report on the Dolphins’ bullying allegations was 144 pages, and his report into the Patriots’ alleged ball deflation was 243 pages.
Wilkinson’s report into two decades worth of allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and assault: 0 pages.
Or at least the NFL says it only asked Wilkinson for a verbal report, and it won’t be releasing any of the details to the public, out of respect for everyone’s privacy.
“Some of the specifics of allegations would’ve given away even who people were,” Lisa Friel, the former sex crimes prosecutor who is the league’s special counsel for investigations, said Thursday. ”I think the commissioner was extremely concerned about respecting all these people’s request for confidentiality.”
The attorneys for 40 ex-employees weren’t buying it, of course, and are aghast that the NFL would choose to protect Snyder instead of demand real accountability.
“This is truly outrageous,” said attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, “and is a slap in the face to the hundreds of women and former employees who came forward in good faith and at great personal risk to report a culture of abuse at all levels of the team, including by Snyder himself.”
The NFL has done a better job of policing itself since Rice, and has been more cognizant of being on the “right side of history” in the last year-plus with its support of Black Lives Matter, vaccination efforts, and many other social causes.
That makes it all the more baffling that the NFL didn’t come down harder on Snyder, who has been nothing but dead weight for the NFL in his 20-plus years of ownership.
There was more than enough smoke for the NFL to force Snyder to sell his team, as it did with Richardson. As the NFL said in its news release, “Ownership and senior management paid little or no attention to these issues.”
It’s equally baffling that the NFL didn’t at least officially suspend Snyder. It certainly smells like an indefinite suspension — Snyder won’t be able to run the team’s day-to-day operations or represent the team at league meetings until Goodell says so, per the Washington Post. But the NFL didn’t call it a suspension, and Snyder still can attend games and even work on finding the team a new stadium.
The only explanation that makes sense is the NFL didn’t want to get embroiled in a lengthy and nasty lawsuit against the notoriously litigious Snyder. The last thing the NFL ever wants is for its business to spill out into court. Sometimes, that means doing the wrong thing, such as burying this report and letting Snyder off with a slap on the wrist.
The NFL had a real opportunity to emerge from this episode as a real champion of women’s rights and equality in the workplace. Instead, it chickened out.
Athletes quick to cash in on new NIL rules
Speaking of shams, the NCAA’s wall of amateurism finally came crashing down Thursday when it waived all name/image/likeness restrictions for college athletes. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix jump-started the new era with an Instagram ad for Milo’s Tea at 12:01 a.m., and by the end of the day scores of athletes across all college sports were promoting products and making money.
“It’s hard to minimize the importance of this,” said attorney Darren Heitner, who negotiated deals for several college athletes that went live Thursday. “For the first time athletes have started to be treated like every other individual in the United States, to be able to profit off your name, image, and likeness.”
The athletes aren’t the only ones looking to benefit from the new revenue streams. For many NFL agents, the NIL laws mean new opportunities for marketing agreements, and the temptation to sign clients while they are still in college.
But the NCAA and NFL Players Association, which certifies and regulates NFL agents, don’t want agents signing college athletes or entering into future agreements. So the NFLPA clarified in a memo to agents Thursday that while agents are allowed to sign athletes to marketing agreements, the discussions can only be about marketing, and most be “wholly separate from any future contract advisor services” and “should not include any terms that require or condition any NIL terms on the player later hiring that contract advisor for NFL contract services.”
In short, NFL agents are free to talk to any athlete on campus and can represent them in marketing deals, but there can’t be any talk about representing the player when he gets to the NFL.
Of course, it won’t be so easy to police. Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler announced Thursday that he signed with NFL agents Chris Cabott and Leigh Steinberg, who represent Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa, to do his marketing deals. Even if Rattler eventually signs with Cabott and Steinberg to be his NFL agents, proving an inducement won’t be easy.
Chris Milton, the father of Georgia sophomore running back Kendall Milton, a breakout star for the 2021 season, said they have heard from many agents and marketing reps over the last few weeks, but everyone has followed the rules.
“I will say so far, everyone’s been pretty respectful,” said Chris Milton, whose son has consummated about eight or nine deals so far including sports memorabilia, social media, and Zaxby’s restaurants. “The conversations that the agents have had, it’s been 100 percent strictly around marketing.”
NFL agents are also finding ways to get involved without having to represent athletes directly. Longtime agent Neil Schwartz, who represented Darrelle Revis and now reps J.C. Jackson, among several players, anticipated the new NIL laws and created a platform similar to Cameo called Jenloop. He calls it “the 21st-century version of a Hallmark card,” in which people pay athletes and celebrities for a social media post or shoutout. As of Friday, Jenloop had more than two dozen college athletes signed up.
“What AirBNB and Uber did to their respective industries, this is what NIL is going to do to college football,” Schwartz said.
Tackles have the right stuff
Left tackle is still the glamour position on the offensive line, and still the one that generally earns the biggest bucks in free agency. But a few right tackles are closing the gap, as teams realize that pass rushers now come at quarterbacks from all angles, not just the blind side.
The Saints gave right tackle Ryan Ramczyk a massive new contract this past week, which amounts to a six-year, $117 million deal ($19.5 million per year). Ramczyk got $49 million fully guaranteed over the first two years, and realistically will make $63 million over three years before the Saints would be able to re-do the deal before the 2024 season.
No right tackle has crossed $20 million per year yet, but the Eagles’ Lane Johnson is at $18 million, and in 2019 the Raiders gave Trent Brown $36.25 million guaranteed to play right tackle, which at the time was the highest guarantee for any tackle, left or right.
Still, left tackle is where the money is at. San Francisco left tackle Trent Williams reset the market this offseason with a record $138 million contract that averages $23.1 million per year. The Packers’ David Bakhtiari ($23 million per year) and Texans’ Laremy Tunsil ($22 million) are also over the $20 million threshold, while the Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley has the highest full guarantee ever for an offensive lineman ($64.1 million).
There are 16 left tackles making at least $10 million per year, and only six right tackles.
Meyer’s missteps continue
Urban Meyer, who always seemed to avoid accountability for his teams’ transgressions in college, didn’t even make it to his first training camp before running afoul of the NFL’s rules. The Jaguars were one of three teams punished by the NFL this past week for violating the offseason training rules that were collectively bargained with the NFLPA.
Specifically, the Jaguars were found to have illegal contact between receivers and defensive backs during an 11-on-11 drill on June 1. The Jaguars were fined $200,000 and Meyer $100,000, and the Jaguars will lose two offseason practice days in 2022 (which feels like more of a reward than a punishment).
“The Jaguars are vigilant about practicing within the CBA rules and will reemphasize offseason training rules as they relate to contact,” the Jaguars said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Meyer’s transition to the NFL has been a bit rough. He didn’t quite understand how to navigate free agency. He got in hot water over hiring disgraced strength coach Chris Doyle, and fired him a day later. And now Meyer gets slapped on the wrist for not following offseason practice rules. The NFL is definitely not college football, and Meyer’s first season is going to be bumpy.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is also becoming a repeat offender of the NFL’s rules. The 49ers first had their rookie minicamp canceled because they allowed bump-and-run drills in practice, which were prohibited. Now ESPN reports that the 49ers were fined $100,000, Shanahan $50,000, and the NFL management council forced the team to cancel the final week of the offseason program because of an unknown practice violation.
The Cowboys were a third team to get punished for violating offseason rules, drawing the same fines as the 49ers.
On June 15, Tom Brady made a funny quip about his age during a media event promoting his golf match this Tuesday with Phil Mickelson, Aaron Rodgers, and Bryson DeChambeau.
“I’m definitely getting older,” said Brady, who turns 44 on Aug. 3. “I think I’m older than most of not only the players, but NFL stadiums at this point, I’ve been around so long. Except Lambeau.”
There are actually five stadiums that are older than Brady, who was born in 1977: Soldier Field (1924), Lambeau Field (1957), Arrowhead Stadium (1972), Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium (1973), and New Orleans’s Superdome (1975).
The next-oldest are Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium (1987), Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Stadium (1995), and Carolina’s Bank of America Stadium (1996). Nineteen of the league’s 32 teams have opened a stadium in the 2000s.
Now that the NFL has moved on from the Washington Football Team investigation — though it may want to revisit its punishment — the next big item on the docket is what to do with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. He remains in a holding pattern with the NFL in light of the 22 women filing civil suits against him alleging sexual harassment and misconduct. It is not yet known if the NFL will place Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list to start training camp, or how long he may have to sit out. The Texans have signed enough quarterbacks to get through the season, but don’t know if they will be able to trade Watson this year or will have to wait until next offseason. Despite the allegations, the Texans should still have plenty of suitors for Watson, with the Eagles and Broncos making the most sense. But one team that is probably out of the Watson sweepstakes is Washington, who signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke this year but don’t have a long-term solution. There’s no way Washington could trade for Watson now given what it just went through with Daniel Snyder . . . No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts signed his rookie contract with the Falcons this past week, a four-year deal that pays him $32.9 million fully guaranteed. It’s technically the highest guarantee for an NFL tight end, beating out the $31.25 million the Patriots gave Jonnu Smith and $25 million they gave Hunter Henry this offseason. But Henry’s guarantee is over two years and Smith’s is over three, while Pitts’s is over four . . . HBO’s “Hard Knocks” is on life support, a shadow of its former self. The show has been sanitized to the point that nothing controversial is shown, and recent seasons featuring the Chargers, Rams, Raiders, Browns, and Buccaneers have been snoozers. Friday, the NFL announced that the Cowboys are this year’s team. If they can’t revitalize “Hard Knocks,” no one can . . . The Lions recently created a staff position, hiring Dr. Michelle Garvin, previously of the University of Maryland, as a mental skills specialist/clinician . . . Given the 9-0 Supreme Court decision against the NCAA, and the implementation of NIL rights, it’s long overdue for the NCAA to restore Reggie Bush’s records and for the Heisman Trust to give him back his 2005 Heisman Trophy. Bush was found to have received cash, the use of a home for his parents, and other inducements while at USC, but the punishment hardly fit the crime. Inducements or not, Bush was an electric football player who earned the Heisman with hard work. “I never cheated this game,” Bush said on Twitter. “That was what they wanted you to believe about me.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.