Attorneys general from six states, including New York, have told the NFL they have “serious concerns” about workplace harassment claims of women and minorities and warned the league that unless it takes steps to address the issues, it could face an extensive investigation.
Legal directors sent a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell late Tuesday outlining their concerns, which stem from a February New York Times report in which more than 30 former employees described experiencing a demoralizing culture.
The allegations included female staff members who said they had been forced to watch a video showing former running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious; that they be asked to publicly declare if they have been victims of domestic violence; and being sidelined or fired from their jobs if they questioned the NFL’s handling of sexual harassment issues.
“All of this is completely unacceptable and potentially illegal,” the attorneys general wrote in a letter, which was obtained by The Times, adding that they would use “the full weight of our authority to investigate and prosecute allegations of harassment, discrimination or retaliation by part of employers in all of our states, including the National Football League.” The league’s headquarters are in Manhattan, and Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, was among the signatories.
The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
James and the other attorneys general planned to ask victims and witnesses of NFL discrimination to file complaints with their office. Civil investigations into workplaces are often opened after employees or former employees have filed complaints directly with the attorneys general. Along with New York were Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and the state of Washington.
The attorneys general’s letter came as the NFL faces a congressional investigation into the treatment of female employees in the workplace at its Washington franchise and a discrimination lawsuit filed by Brian Flores, an Afro-Latino man and former Miami coach. Dolphins, who said the league broke its rules that require teams to interview a wide range of candidates for coaching and general manager positions.
Flores was released by the Miami Dolphins at the end of the 2021 season and, with no head coaching offers, was hired as an assistant defensive coach by the Pittsburgh Steelers. A pre-trial conference for his federal lawsuit is scheduled for April 29.
Several teams have strongly denied Flores’ claims, and the NFL said it was “deeply committed to ensuring fair employment practices” and that “we will defend ourselves against these claims, which are without merit.”
A congressional committee has also been investigating the NFL’s handling of allegations of widespread sexual harassment at the Washington Commanders’ front office. That committee requested tens of thousands of league documents and held a hearing in February in which former employees spoke about their experiences working for the team and offered new allegations of harassment against Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.
Snyder has denied the allegations and the NFL has opened an investigation into the new sexual harassment allegations. In 2021, the league concluded its year-long investigation into original reports of harassment within the Commanders organization, fining the team $10 million but refusing to make its full findings public.
Last week, Goodell said there was “no time frame” to finish the league’s investigation into whether Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson violated his personal conduct policy. He was accused by 22 women of sexual misconduct in 2020, allegations Watson has denied. In March, grand juries in two Texas counties rejected a total of 10 criminal cases against him.
The threat to investigate working conditions at NFL headquarters is the latest attempt by James, a Democrat who in 2018 became the first black woman elected New York attorney general, to confront companies and employers accused of harassment. or sexual abuse.
His investigations have ranged from high-profile investigations into the New York City restaurant industry to less visible cases, such as a 2020 investigation into a Long Island-based construction company that his office found had sexually harassed 18 ex-employees
His office investigated allegations of sexual harassment at Spotted Pig, a Manhattan restaurant that closed in January 2020, a few weeks after James obtained a settlement with Ken Friedman, its principal owner. Friedman agreed to pay $240,000 and a portion of his earnings to 11 former employees who had accused him of sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination.
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That investigation, which began under James’s predecessor, also investigated cases of sexual harassment by Mario Batali, the celebrity chef and former investor in Spotted Pig.
James led a separate investigation into Batali and his former partner, Joe Bastianich, which found their once sprawling restaurant business violated state and local human rights laws. His office negotiated a $600,000 settlement to pay at least 20 women and men who said they were sexually harassed while working at his upscale restaurants, including Babbo, Lupa and Del Posto.
Most recently, James’ office oversaw the investigation of sexual harassment allegations, from inappropriate comments to instances of unwanted contact, against Andrew M. Cuomo that led to his resignation as governor. His office released a devastating report in August detailing instances in which Cuomo had harassed multiple women, including current and former government employees, from an executive assistant to a state trooper.
“I believe in women and I believe in these 11 women,” James said when he released the report, adding that the state had “an obligation to protect women in their workplace.”
Luis Ferré-Sadurni contributed reporting from Albany, NY