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Business of Football: Leaked Washington Football Team Emails Show How NFL Sausage Is Made

From accusations of favored treatment to jokes about cutting player salary and the curious timing of the leak, nothing about this story should come as a surprise.

As I have said often, the NFL is full of drama, intrigue and differing strategies to success. And, oh, by the way, there are games as well.

The games, as I often say, are just the storefront to the business of the NFL; and it’s there where the true action in this league happens. I take you behind the curtain of that intrigue and drama, and sometimes the picture I paint is not the curated one we see on television. It can be political, back-scratching and unseemly. “How the sausage is made” has been on full display the past couple of weeks, with an ongoing saga that appears to have 1) kept an important partner in his job, 2) buried a (now forever former) head coach, 3) protected some at the expense of that coach (and potentially others), and 4) drawn the (negative) attention of fans, media and, now, Congress.

Let’s examine.

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Bruce Allen (left) and Daniel Snyder (right) in August 2019.

Favored treatment in Washington

The origin of Jon Gruden’s emails’ surfacing stems generally from an investigation into sexual harassment claims and a toxic workplace environment in the Washington Football Team (WFT). That now-completed investigation 1) was overseen by the NFL and 2) was presented by the attorney handling it, Beth Wilkinson, in oral form only; there is no written documentation. And as to the discipline meted out to WFT owner Daniel Snyder at the end of that investigation? A nominal fine of $10 million and transfer of ownership operations from Snyder to his wife. The oral report and benign punishments were not only curious but continue a perception—fueled by further discovery of emails between former WFT president Bruce Allen and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash—that the team has received favorable treatment from the league.

Women working in Washington, it was reported, were told to wear tight dresses, and constantly felt pressured and intimidated by the working environment. Cheerleaders were put in compromising positions on junkets and other events even, reportedly, at the behest of the owner. Those women are not being served by the ousting of Gruden; they are pawns in some kind of political warfare.

With no written report of the WFT investigation’s findings, the emails actually emerged as part of litigation against Snyder where Allen was added to the litigation (by Snyder). Allen, who has his own litigation against Snyder—there are lots of lawyers—appeared to have been quite a prolific emailer.

While there is a lot about Allen revealed in this email trove, we have seen nothing about Snyder or any other NFL owners. And last week the team decided to honor the memory of the late Sean Taylor in a harried attempt to divert attention from the investigation. Even if that ceremony had been legitimately planned, the execution was poor. Through it all, the investigation and selective release of emails have ensnared only Gruden.

The NFL and WFT hope/expect that we will all turn to the next league drama, and they are usually right. (There is always a next drama. Remember Urban Meyer?) But now Congress has entered the picture, as the House Oversight Committee is wondering the same questions about a preferred investigation into Washington and a bigger issue with the brazen nature of the Gruden emails. The NFL can ignore the fans, the media and the lawyers (see the St. Louis case), but it cannot ignore Congress.

Further, investigative journalists at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other places have not closed the book here. My sense is we are at the beginning, not the end, of whatever needs to be exposed here.

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The Gruden sacrifice

I worked with Gruden at ESPN and, like many others, felt his infectious energy, enthusiasm and charisma, never seeing anything reflected in those repugnant emails. I have found some of those piling on Gruden to be disingenuous, with some saying they knew what a jerk Gruden was for years even though they never said anything that before last week.

After a first email leaked about DeMaurice Smith (more on that below), a slow drip of leaked emails continued until Gruden “resigned.” Someone, or some group of people, were going to continue to expose Gruden, doing whatever it took to get him out.

Gruden was sacrificed for the greater good. The greater good of whom and for what remain questions we would like to know.

Some have suggested that Gruden relinquished whatever was left on a reported $100 million contract—never believe numbers like that serving the agent’s agenda—by “resigning.” Well, no. Raiders owner Mark Davis—who coveted Gruden for years—did not want to fire him, telling reporters to “Ask the NFL!” when asked about the resignation. Yes, there will be lawyers about this contract, as I can envision claims against the Raiders, the NFL, the leaker or all of the above. Believe me, Jon Gruden is not walking away empty-handed from his contract.

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NFLPA continuity

As mentioned above, the first email that exploded into the news was a racist one about NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith, appearing in the news the day before a reelection vote on Smith. (Full disclosure: I was approached about that position a couple of times, though not recently, and decided against it.) Smith needed 22 votes to retain his position and—one day after the leaked emails—received exactly, you guessed it, 22 votes.

Sure, the timing could have been a totally random coincidence and not meant to evoke at least one empathy vote to save Smith’s job. However, knowing the cutthroat nature of NFL business, it would not surprise me if the leaker(s) wanted to ensure that Smith—who has negotiated two decade-long CBAs that have served NFL ownership very well—kept his job.

It seems as if whoever leaked these selected emails wanted 1) DeMaurice Smith to keep his job, and/or 2) Jon Gruden to lose his job, and/or 3) coverage diverted from other behavior to Gruden’s behavior.

How the sausage is made

Beyond the focus on Gruden, the only other tranche of emails that has seen the light of day is a series of communications between Allen and Pash, the NFL’s top lawyer and one of the league’s most senior people. Full disclosure again: I have known Jeff for a long time and have always found him to be not only very bright but down to earth and easy to deal with, not something I would say about many in NFL senior management.

The communications show some favorable attitudes toward Allen, as well a Pash comment referring to lowering a player’s salary as “the Lord’s work.” While some have expressed astonishment, I am not surprised. That is how business is done in the NFL, not to mention almost any business.

Here is what I observed to be the reality of working for an NFL team: Every team thinks that the NFL league office treats other teams better than they treat them. In Green Bay, our paranoia stemmed from not having an owner, thus feeling treated “less than” by Park Avenue. Other teams, for one reason or another, felt the same. The NFL is and has always been very political; Snyder’s hiring of Allen reflected that.

Allen was a master politician, and a favorite of many in power in the NFL through his stints in Oakland, Tampa and Washington. His father (George) was a highly successful coach in Washington; his brother was the governor of Virginia and, while Bruce was in the league, a U.S. senator. Snyder hired Allen to leverage those relationships—with Capitol Hill and with the league office—for the ultimate gain of WFT. The communications with Pash show Allen doing exactly what he was hired to do: gain a slight edge over other teams with Park Avenue.

As to the Pash-Allen exchange about lowering a player’s pay: Again, that is the business that they are in. Management tries to keep collective labor costs down, allowing more flexibility with the roster and/or bringing more profit to the owner. Had it been an exchange between an agent about getting a player a better contract and a union representative responding “the Lord’s work,” that would also be in line with the business of football.

The Pash-Allen emails are not pretty, but that is how the sausage is made in the NFL, the seamy underbelly of how the business of football works.

Precedent

As a lawyer, everything, to me, is about precedent. And there are some dangerous precedents here.

There will eventually be more leaks of communications from the email-prolific Allen as we go forward. With Congress and others clamoring for more, it will now be hard to keep that Pandora’s box closed. And we will likely find out about other communications to and from Allen that are—or can be perceived as—racist or misogynistic or anti-LGBTQ, or include pictures of naked or topless women, etc. And now the precedent is that those communications mean termination of the sender. Now, are senders of similar communications—perhaps owners, coaches, executives of teams and/or the league, etc.—going to be fired? Are they going to be sacrificed publicly like Gruden?

Speaking of precedent, longtime NFL owner and power broker Jerry Richardson was forced into selling the Panthers in 2017 after a Sports Illustrated investigation into his improprieties with women in the workplace. While it is hard to compare degrees of sin, his reported behavior did not seem more egregious than what we heard in the WFT workplace. Yet Snyder remains in control of the team. This saga raises the question: Is the previous discipline to Snyder—a $10 million fine and turning over operations to his wife—going to be the final word? Will the Richardson precedent come into play?

The leak of the Gruden emails feels like the tip of a dangerous iceberg here. The NFL and WFT will continue to try to divert our attention away from a look inside a cold-hearted and political big business, one that is much more public than most. But good luck with that.

Whoever is behind the leaks successfully buried Gruden, but was short-sighted if they thought the focus would end with him.

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