Attorneys General Threaten to Investigate N.F.L.’s Treatment of Female Employees

The attorneys general of six states, including New York, have told the N.F.L. they have “grave concerns” about allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities and warned the league that unless it takes steps to address the problems it could face a broad investigation.

The chief legal officers sent a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell late Tuesday outlining their concerns, which stem from a February report by The New York Times in which more than 30 former employees described experiencing a demoralizing culture.

The allegations included female staff members saying they had been forced to watch a video showing the former running back Ray Rice knocking unconscious his then-fiancée; being asked to publicly declare if they had been victims of domestic violence; and being marginalized or pushed out of their jobs if they questioned the N.F.L.’s handling of sexual harassment issues.

“All of this is entirely unacceptable and potentially unlawful,” 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 employers throughout our states, including the National Football League.” The league headquarters are in Manhattan, and Letitia James, the New York attorney general, was among the signers.

In a statement released Wednesday, James and the other attorneys general asked victims and witnesses of discrimination at the N.F.L. to file complaints with her office. Often, civil investigations into workplaces open after employees or former employees have filed complaints directly with attorneys general. Joining New York were Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington State.

In response to the February report, the N.F.L. disputed that women, and particularly women of color, were sidelined or that the league was insensitive to the issues of gender and racial inequality.

“We share the commitment of the attorneys general to ensuring that all of our workplaces — including the league office and 32 clubs — are diverse, inclusive and free from discrimination and harassment,” the league said in a statement on Wednesday, adding that it intends to share “the policies, practices, protocols, education programs and partnerships” put in place to address its workplace culture.

The letter from the attorneys general came as the N.F.L. is facing a congressional inquiry into the workplace treatment of female employees at its Washington franchise and a discrimination lawsuit by Brian Flores, an Afro Latino man and the former coach of the Miami Dolphins, who said the league flouted its rules requiring teams to interview a diverse range of candidates for coaching and general manager positions.

Flores was fired 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 pretrial conference for his federal lawsuit is scheduled to be held on April 29.

Several teams have vociferously denied Flores’s claims and the N.F.L. said it was “deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices” and that “we will defend against these claims, which are without merit.”

A congressional committee has also been investigating the N.F.L.’s handling of claims of widespread sexual harassment in the front office of the Washington Commanders. That committee requested tens of thousands of documents from the league 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 Daniel Snyder, the Commanders’ owner.

Snyder has denied the allegations and the N.F.L. opened an investigation into the newly surfaced sexual harassment claims. The league in 2021 concluded its yearlong inquiry into the original reports of harassment within the Commanders organization, fining the team $10 million but declining to make its full findings public.

Last week, Goodell said there was “no time frame” on finalizing the league’s inquiry into whether Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson violated its 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 10 total criminal cases against him.

The threat to investigate workplace conditions in the N.F.L.’s headquarters is the latest attempt by James, a Democrat who in 2018 became the first Black woman elected New York’s attorney general, to confront companies and employers accused of sexual harassment or abuse.

Her investigations have ranged from high-profile inquiries into New York City’s restaurant industry to less visible cases, such as an investigation in 2020 into a Long Island-based construction company that her office found had sexually harassed 18 former employees.

Her office investigated allegations of sexual harassment at the Spotted Pig, a Manhattan restaurant that closed in January 2020, a few weeks after James secured a settlement from Ken Friedman, its principal owner. Friedman agreed to pay $240,000 and a share of his profits to 11 former employees who had accused him of sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination.

That investigation, which began under James’s predecessor, also looked into instances of sexual harassment by Mario Batali, the celebrity chef and a former investor at the Spotted Pig.

James led a separate investigation into Batali and his former partner, Joe Bastianich, that found that their once-sprawling restaurant business violated state and city human rights laws. Her office brokered a settlement of $600,000 to pay at least 20 women and men who said they had been sexually harassed while working at their high-end restaurants, including Babbo, Lupa and Del Posto.

Most recently, James’s office oversaw the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations — from inappropriate comments to instances of unwanted touching — against Andrew M. Cuomo that led to his resignation as governor. Her office released a devastating report in August that detailed instances in which Cuomo had harassed multiple women, including current and former government employees, from an executive assistant to a female state trooper.

“I believe women, and I believe these 11 women,” James said when she released the report, adding that the state had “an obligation to protect women in their workplace.”

Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting from Albany, N.Y.

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