With the recent revelations of organization-wide sexual harassment and abuse spanning two decades, the football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins has proven that the inappropriate conduct detailed in a 2018 New York Times story was par for the course.
Where the 2018 report centered around one horrendous example of cheerleader exploitation — a 2013 Costa Rica trip where cheerleaders were made to pose topless for a calendar shoot in front of male suite holders, then offered to male sponsors as nightclub escorts without their consent — the latest report put the organization’s predatory attitudes into context. The Washington Post report details sexual harassment affecting women throughout the organization, from the female sales employees pressured into wearing revealing clothes and flirting with clients to women who avoided a plexiglass staircase that male staffers would gather beneath to look under their skirts. Worse abuse occurred on occasion.
The 2020 report gave the lie to the team’s claims that the 2018 allegations were overstated. And the words of one cheerleader quoted in the 2018 article have now begun to take on more urgency: “The issue was that management seemed to condone all of this.”
The Patterns of Workplace Harassment
A big reason that the abusive atmosphere inside the Washington organization was able to be perpetuated for so long is a basic lack of understanding of what sexual harassment is. The “joking” that targeted the appearance and sexual attitudes of female cheerleaders, staffers and reporters wasn’t just “locker room behavior” — it was sexual harassment. The comments that senior staff made to former employee Emily Applegate and others about the “1,000 people out there who would take our job in a heartbeat” weren’t just pressure — they were workplace intimidation.
Sexual harassment is harassment which explicitly or implicitly puts a person’s job in jeopardy. Sexual advances may be considered sexual harassment when:
- They are unwelcome, not consented to and/or repeated
- They endanger a person’s employment
- They interrupt an employee’s workflow
- They foster an uncomfortable and offensive work environment
Washington’s Hostile Work Environment
The reason why so many instances of sexual harassment were able to occur in the Washington football organization was because of a culture in which abuse and harassment were normalized and pervasive enough to intimidate employees in a vulnerable position. While Washington higher-ups managed to dress up some of the culture of harassment as merely “risqué,” when we look at the kinds of sexual harassment that can contribute to a hostile work environment their wrongdoing becomes clearer.
Actions that can make for a hostile work environment include:
- Staring at employees in a sexually suggestive manner
- Making sexual comments about someone’s appearance
- Contact that might make an employee feel awkward, like patting or pinching their body
- Making sexual jokes or remarks in front of an employee
- Making sexual innuendos in communications with an employee
Employer Liability for Harassment
Although the Washington organization has fended off accusations that it enabled the behavior of the prominent staff members accused of harassment — even going so far as launching an internal investigation — observers have noticed a pattern in the 13-year span of allegations against the franchise, made by 15 former and current employees. Many believe that the abusive work environment in Washington starts at the top, with an “increasingly risqué” cheerleading mandate put in place under Dan Snyder’s leadership.
When managerial harassment results in the kind of hostile work environment alleged to have been present in Washington, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that:
- It made good-faith attempts to prevent harassment and ensure the efficacy of reporting harassment
- The employee failed to take advantage of protections provided by the employer
In the face of the job insecurity standard among NFL cheerleaders, insufficient internal reporting mechanisms and the non-disclosure agreements that Washington cheerleaders were made to sign upon joining the team, it doesn’t seem as if Washington wants to change its abusive patterns on its own.
A Washington Redskins cheerleader cheers at a home game. Source: Wikipedia, shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license
When to Consult with an Experienced Sexual Harassment Attorney
The revelations of sexual harassment in Washington has shown that injuries aren’t the only risks that football organizations bring.
If you or a loved one have experienced sexual harassment on an individual or organizational level, the best course of action is to consult with skilled attorneys like those at McEldrew Young Purtell Merritt as soon as possible. With 30 years of experience in tort law, McEldrew Young Purtell Merritt is well suited to evaluate the situation and help determine the best way forward.