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Nation & World

Promised a new culture, women say the NFL instead pushed them aside

At a Super Bowl halftime show rehearsal in 2020, a top male NFL executive argued with a woman who said that he then pushed her. After investigating, the league removed the man from his role overseeing the show and ordered him to take an anger management course. But he remains a senior executive.

Exactly what happened between the woman, who was involved in the production of the show, and the man, Mark Quenzel, the NFL’s senior vice president and head of content, remains in dispute, and the league insists he did not push her.

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Yet the incident was one of many raised by more than 30 women who spoke to The New York Times about their experiences working for the NFL. They described deeply ingrained corporate culture that demoralized some female employees, drove some to quit in frustration and left many feeling brushed aside.

The women said this culture has persisted despite a promise from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — made after the 2014 release of a video that showed running back Ray Rice punching his fiancée — that the league would take a stricter stance on domestic violence and sexual assault and hire more female executives.

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Alissa Leeds in Brooklyn on Dec. 10, 2021. Leeds, a digital media reporting analyst, left the NFL in 2019 in disgust at its internal response to high profile accusations of domestic violence against its players.

In the last week alone, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who is Black and Hispanic, sued the league for racial discrimination in its hiring practices, and two former employees of the newly renamed Washington Commanders told Congress that the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, had placed his hand on a female employee’s thigh at a staff dinner and hosted a work event where team executives hired prostitutes.

The league said that Flores’ lawsuit was “without merit” and that it was investigating the harassment allegations against Snyder, who called them “lies.”

Some of the women interviewed by the Times spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they were bound by nondisclosure agreements or feared that their careers would be sabotaged if they went public.

The NFL employs about 1,100 people, 37% of them women and 30% people of color, according to league spokesperson Brian McCarthy. Like other corporations, it has poured more effort into diversifying its hiring. It has also put in place measures intended to signal support of a diverse workforce.

Yet the NFL has backtracked on promises to be more transparent.

“We all love football, but if you work there every day, you learn it is not a place you feel good about,” said Ramona Washington, a former production coordinator at NFL Network who is Black. After four years, she said, she quit in disgust in 2018 after her report of bias among managers went nowhere.

The NFL’s efforts to reform its culture began as it tried to recover from a scandal that stained its reputation.

Theresa Locklear, the league’s director of business intelligence and optimization, could not bring herself to watch the video of Rice hitting his fiancée the day it became public in September 2014.

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Goodell sensed the gravity of the situation, she thought, when he met with about 50 women who worked at NFL headquarters. According to Locklear, Goodell reiterated his pledge to address domestic violence but offered few specific steps because, he said, the league was still working on solutions.

“I remember leaving there and thinking that nothing had changed,” Locklear said. “There were no takeaways.”

After the Rice video, the NFL accelerated its development of a domestic violence and sexual abuse training program for players, coaches and staff.

The league rolled out the program in late 2014. But sessions got off to an uncomfortable start when Dwight Hollier, a former pro linebacker who worked in the player engagement department, introduced himself by saying, “I used to hit people for a living.”

Through McCarthy, Hollier said he was trying to contrast his former role as a linebacker with his new career as a licensed professional counselor. But Locklear and other women at the sessions saw the remark as tactless considering the setting.

For Locklear, the seminar “was the beginning of the end for me,” she said. “It didn’t feel like anyone was protecting us. It felt like the league was covering its ass.”

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Prompted by the Rice crisis and an annual survey of sports leagues that criticized the NFL for a lack of gender diversity on its staff, the league accelerated the hiring and promotion of women and people of color.

As a result, the number of women at the vice president rank or higher grew to 31 in 2015, from 21 the year before, while the number of people of color at that level rose to 21, from 14, over the same period.

Dasha Smith, an executive vice president, said that 56% of the people hired in the league offices in 2021 were women and 44% were people of color. She added that the league analyzes promotions for bias and monitors pay equity.

“Of course, we can always do better and make people feel comfortable speaking up,” Smith said.

But the women interviewed by the Times, more than one-third of whom are women of color, said voicing concerns to supervisors or human resources often resulted in women being “managed out” or “packaged out.” One Black woman said that after she told HR that she felt her supervisor was biased, she was offered an exit package.

Renie Anderson, the league’s chief revenue officer, who has worked at the league since 2006, said the influence of female leaders has grown immensely during her time there. And while the sports industry generally has been male-dominated, Anderson said, “I don’t think I was ever held back here at the NFL because I’m a woman.”

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Despite internal struggles, league executives sought ways to promote the NFL as supportive of women. They organized the NFL’s first women’s summit a few days before the Super Bowl in 2016.

In November 2018, a video surfaced showing Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt shoving a woman, then kicking her when she was on the ground. The woman assaulted did not press charges.

Alissa Leeds, a digital media reporting analyst, was at work the day TMZ broke the story. “We were staring in shock at the video,” she said.

She expected league leadership to quickly address the video with employees, but hours passed with no word. Leeds, who was exposed to domestic violence as a child, wrote an email asking one of her bosses if the league planned to help employees affected by the display of violence.

The next morning, Leeds received a call from Kim McFadden, vice president of human resources, who had read her email. McFadden told her that Hunt was “just a guy being stupid,” she said. His actions, McFadden added, were “not as bad as Ray Rice.”

Through McCarthy, McFadden denied making the statements.

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Leeds left the league in August 2019.

“This wasn’t my moral compass,” she said.

Hunt was suspended for eight games in March 2019, one month after he was signed by the Cleveland Browns.

In spring 2019, the NFL organized a panel for the league’s internal Women’s Interactive Network, drawing new criticism because of who participated and what they said.

The panel was led by Jane Skinner Goodell, the commissioner’s wife and a former Fox News anchor, and included Charlotte Jones, an executive vice president for the Dallas Cowboys and the daughter of the team’s owner, Jerry Jones.

Skinner Goodell asked the women on her panel to offer advice to female NFL employees trying to navigate cultural shifts brought on by the #MeToo movement. Jones began by saying that men were being unfairly tarnished.

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According to a video obtained by the Times, Jones said there are “unbelievable gentlemen” in the Cowboys organization who “are afraid to be in a meeting by themselves with another woman, and that hurts us.”

She said, “I actually have a lot of sympathy for men right now.”

Some women noted the dissonance of being advised on workplace advancement by relatives of two of the league’s most powerful men.

McCarthy said the league received “very positive feedback” about the event.

It was the next year that Quenzel, the senior vice president, argued with a woman helping to organize the Super Bowl halftime show in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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Afterward, the woman contacted the league and said that Quenzel had pushed her, according to a former NFL employee with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the league.

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The NFL pulled video footage captured by security cameras, according to the person. After viewing it, the person said, the league removed the Super Bowl halftime show from Quenzel’s oversight and ordered the anger management course.

“It is absolutely false that he pushed the woman,” McCarthy said on behalf of Quenzel and the league. He declined to discuss the incident further, make Quenzel available or answer questions about the change in Quenzel’s responsibilities or the anger management course.

The league has held back in sharing conclusions of other investigations into workplace treatment of women. After news reports of sexual harassment of women at the Washington franchise were published in 2020, the league assumed oversight of an inquiry that was being conducted by an outside lawyer.

A congressional committee revealed last week that the NFL had reached an agreement with the franchise that prohibited the release of confidential information obtained from the team as part of the investigation without the team’s consent.

For Leeds, the lack of transparency was another reminder of the inconsistencies between the NFL’s public statements and the inequities at the league. “Everything’s excused in the name of football,” she said.

c.2021 The New York Times Company


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