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Letter from six attorneys general lists “potentially unlawful” conduct by the NFL toward female employees

Attorneys general from six states say the NFL could be investigated for workplace harassments, and Mike Florio unpacks what it all means.

New York attorney general Letitia James has posted the letter sent by her office and signed by five of her counterparts to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday.

While little more than one page in length, the letter is powerful.

The letter expresses “grave concerns” about allegations made by former employees of the NFL and reported on February 8 by the New York Times. The letter focuses mainly on female and minority employees of the NFL itself, either the league office or NFL Network, which is owned by the league.

This paragraph merits careful consideration: “We all watched in horror in 2014 when the video of Ray Rice striking, knocking out, and spitting on his fiancé was made public. In the aftermath, you promised to take gender violence seriously and improve the institutional culture for women at the N.F.L. These recent allegations suggest that you have not. Female employees reported that they were subjected to repeated viewings of the Rice video, with commentary by coworkers that the victim had brought the violence on herself. Other women reported that, in a training intended to improve sensitivity on the issue, they were asked to raise their hand to self-identify if they had been victims of domestic violence or knew someone who had. This is NOT doing better. Antidiscrimination laws in many states, including New York, prohibit employers from subjecting domestic violence victims, as well as women and people of color, to a hostile work environment.”

If those things are true, that’s a horrible look for the league.

The letter also points out that female employees believe they were “held back and criticize for having an ‘aggressive tone’ -- an often unfair stereotype of women, especially women of color, who try to advance in a male dominated workplace.”

Then there’s this line, which goes beyond claims made by NFL employees and includes some of the allegations made against the Washington Commanders: “Other women described experience unwanted touching from male bosses, attending parties where prostitutes were hired, being passed over or promotions based on their gender, and being pushing out for complaining about discrimination.” The letter also notes that some former female employees have learned “that there were no records of their complaints of gender discrimination.”

The letter closes with a paragraph that doesn’t read like an invitation to engage in a dialogue, but a threat/promise: “All of this is entirely unacceptable and potentially unlawful. The N.F.L. must do better -- pink jerseys are not a replacement for equal treatment and full inclusion of women in the workplace. Our offices will use the full weight of our authority to investigate and prosecute allegations of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation by employers throughout our states, including at the National Football League.”

The NFL should be very concerned about this. It demonstrates that Congress isn’t the only public body about which the league should be concerned. Prosecutors have extensive power and discretion. They can launch aggressive and thorough investigations, exercising the kind of external authority and oversight that the NFL despises.

In many respects, it’s overdue. And please spare me the “why do you hate the league from which you make a living?” nonsense. I love the NFL. And I want it to aspire to be better than it’s been. Thus, if current stewards of the league office or any of the teams are falling short of the standard that is routinely applied aggressively to players, that should be explored, exposed, and rectified.