The Washington Post published an article Thursday covering the toxic culture of the Washington NFL franchise. In the article, 15 women give accounts of their experiences of sexual harassment and intimidation that were prevalent in the organization. What stood out to me while reading the article was just how bad the organizational culture was with the team.
An organizational culture that uses intimidation and bullying as a replacement for motivating and empowering employees will create opportunities for discrimination and exploitation even when it doesn’t foster them directly. No one goes to a bully to complain that his lackey was bullying them. In an organization where the leadership routinely engages in belittling and mocking behavior, a functional reporting system can’t work.
This doesn’t just affect discriminatory behavior; it also works to silence new ideas and constructive criticism. The Steelers’ great scout Bill Nunn was famous for building a culture that fostered healthy disagreement and debate between scouts and executives. The scouts were empowered to disagree with each other and with executives, presenting their arguments in an environment where they would not face ridicule, even if they ended up being wrong. That kind of empowering culture is something that has benefitted the Steelers organization greatly.
Don’t get me wrong; the Steelers aren’t perfect, the Rooneys are mortal men, and no organization lives up to its ideals all the time. The culture isn’t perfect, but it is a positive one. Art Rooney would talk to players and make sure he knew them, building relationships with players, coaches, scouts, reporters, all the way down to the cafeteria employees. Those relationships created lines of communication between the boss and the employees that are important in protecting the team culture.
That culture shows up with the players as well, where players who come up in the system are expected to help develop other players, even those that will eventually replace them. Antonio Brown was showing JuJu Smith-Schuster tricks of the trade that he learned from Hines Ward. Whatever we may think of Antonio Brown now, he fit into that culture for a long time — a culture that was led by Mike Tomlin, a student of Tony Dungy, who learned from Chuck Noll. Hines Ward joined the team under Bill Cowher, and learned the same culture. The culture was bigger than the coach, and it is why the team has sustained impressive success over an incredible span of time.
A positive organizational culture isn’t a guaranteed ticket to being the best. I bet we’ve all seen instances where cutting corners and strong-arming people brings success, often quicker that doing things the right way. Over time that success dries up, while the organizations with a strong positive culture continue to flourish.
Right now in the news out of Washington, we are seeing an organization whose culture was destroyed from the very top, an organization that abandoned healthy disagreement for yes-men, shut down communication from employees to the upper levels of leadership, and created a culture where executives felt they could get away with treating people in awful and illegal ways. Washington DC’s NFL team is going to get dragged through the mess it created, and people are going to face public scorn and maybe even legal consequences for their parts in it. But beyond that it is also important to remember the organization that Daniel Snyder’s team is a part of, the NFL. The NFL itself allowed this culture to grow in its midst, putting no checks on Snyder, allowing him to build a culture of intimidation and harassment in their midst while they turned a blind eye.
This isn’t the first time a scandal of this nature has happened in the NFL. In 2017 allegations of inappropriate conduct by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson made the news. His inappropriate treatment of female staffers and at least one instance of a racial slur being used toward a team scout were reported by ESPN, and that scandal would result in the Panthers being sold to then minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers David Tepper. Victims in that scandal talked about the lack of a system to report the treatment they endured. As one victim wrote of the NFL’s investigation into the misconduct:
“Throughout the many years I was sexually harassed by Jerry Richardson, I always believed that there was no one above him, no one whom I could tell, without repercussions, what was happening to me. You proved me right. You have now become another enabler.”
The solution isn’t just to cut out the current executives and hope the next batch do the right thing. The NFL itself needs to improve on its culture and create roads of communication that go around team executives and owners—a system which allow players, coaches, cheerleaders, reporters, scouts, even the cafeteria workers to anonymously and safely report workplace issues, not internally to the team, but to the NFL or to a third party. This scandal may look awful for Snyder and his team, but it doesn’t help the NFL either.
I’m not going to pretend it would be an easy, one-step fix-all to a problem our society seems to be determined to continue to struggle with, but there are organizations out there doing it better, and I’m sure they could help the NFL come up with a better way to protect NFL employees, no matter who runs the team that employs them.