Litigation seemed inevitable. But the targets? That was a surprise for the NFL.
That’s the takeaway from the latest tentpole of embarrassment for Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, who was sued on Thursday by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine for allegedly covering up decades of abuse and sexual harassment inside his NFL team. In an unexpected twist, Snyder had company in the 45-page complaint: The NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell were named as co-defendants in the complaint, alongside Snyder.
In a nutshell, Racine is alleging that as Snyder was covering up his own misdeeds, Goodell and the NFL were covering up for Snyder.
Racine says that the alleged collusion came in the form of manipulating what the public knew about the Beth Wilkinson workplace investigation into the Commanders, which ultimately ended with an opaque verbal “summary of findings” and a $10 million fine for Snyder. The attorney general claims that Snyder, Goodell and the NFL worked to “deceive residents of the District of Columbia” and ultimately defrauded customers who were spending money to support the team through ticket purchases, merchandise and other financial transactions.
“The defendants lied about what they knew, and then the defendants lied about what they were going to do about it,” Racine said.
The Commanders and NFL strongly denied Racine’s claims.
The side-by-side statements from the #NFL and Washington #Commanders denying the multitude of allegations in the 45-page civil suit filed by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine against Dan Snyder, commissioner Roger Goodell and the league. pic.twitter.com/IjIbflMca2
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) November 11, 2022
The fact that the NFL and Goodell are now directly wired into Snyder’s legal woes as defendants is significant on two fronts. Let’s start with front No. 1.
Dan Snyder's mess now threatens NFL
This development all but cements that Snyder’s days as an NFL team owner are coming to an end. Regardless of the “exploration” of a sale of the Commanders, Goodell and the league are now getting swallowed by the blast radius surrounding Snyder. At the conclusion of the Wilkinson investigation in 2021, Snyder’s problems were largely only his. Aside from the repeated public relations black eye for the NFL and the constant microscope on Goodell’s handling of Wilkinson’s probe, the overriding threat to the league was minimal. Snyder’s presence was ugly, but manageable.
That changed when Congress got involved. Then it got worse when Racine and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares both began separate investigations into Snyder. All of the sudden, the in-house Wilkinson investigation transformed into an outhouse problem, with the NFL and Goodell knee-deep in the foulness. Once it destroyed Snyder’s ability to get a new stadium built, he was teetering on the edge with frustrated fellow franchise owners. Now there’s litigation on top of it that actually names the league as a defendant (and there may be more lawsuits on the way). Pile it all up and what you get is a stack of trouble that makes it a virtual certainty that Snyder is finished. Either he’ll willingly sell the team or he’ll be voted out in the last show of force the league has available.
Which brings us to front No. 2.
The Roger Goodell problem
In the vast expanse of everything that has happened with Snyder over the past few years, there was little question that Goodell was doing precisely what the other NFL team owners wanted. From the shady conclusion of the Wilkinson investigation to Goodell becoming a virtual flak jacket for club owners following the massive spate of criticism that ensued, the commissioner was doing his handsomely paid job. But as the situation with Snyder has become increasingly volatile, Goodell has also seemed to become remarkably passive inside the situation. Not only did he completely avoid Snyder as a topic inside an owners-only meeting in New York in October, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay reportedly told shareholders that Snyder’s situation should be something controlled by club owners and not the commissioner.
Is Goodell avoiding taking on Snyder as this all spirals? And if Goodell is avoiding the Snyder problem, why is that?
It’s fair to wonder if those questions could be answered by Racine’s lawsuit, which points to Goodell and Snyder having a partnership of sorts when it came to the Wilkinson investigation. Or at the very least, a partnership in how to survive it and move on. If that proves to be true, then what consequences are awaiting Goodell on the other side of this? If Snyder had a role in manipulating the outcome of the probe (as Racine alleges) and Goodell had a role in helping him along the way (as Racine alleges), that would clearly make Goodell an accomplice in the middle of everything.
Looking back at how the Wilkinson investigation unfolded, a great emphasis was put on what Snyder had supposedly gotten away with. Far less grief was focused on what Goodell might have been getting away with, too. While Wilkinson gave a verbal report on what she found in her Snyder investigation, we’ve gotten no report on anything Goodell was doing then to help Snyder. Nor a report on what he may have been doing in the months since.
The Racine lawsuit could be the mechanism that changes that. As much as it aims to put a spotlight on Snyder, it’s attempting to put another glaring spotlight on the NFL commissioner. That’s another problem for a league that has a growing docket of litigation pressed against it, including the racial discrimination class-action lawsuit from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Brian Flores and a lawsuit from former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden alleging a league-orchestrated smear campaign against him.
Any one of these lawsuits could end up getting under the hood of the league and seeing how it operates. More specifically, one or all could end up pivoting into a big reveal on how Goodell operates when his first priority is to protect his bosses.
That makes all of this more than a Dan Snyder story or a Dan Snyder problem. Now it’s in Goodell’s lap, too. What we learn about both when this is all over will be fascinating.