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'We feel invisible': Washington Football Team employees experienced decades of abuse, sexual harassment

Washington Football Team fans deserve to be free of the toxic, drama-filled, misogynistic culture that comes from the top.

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The general public now has access to the shocking details in the emails from Jon Gruden, newly resigned head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. The NFL collected and reviewed these emails concerning the investigation of the Washington Football Team’s abusive work environment in 2020. Just a handful of emails – out of 650,000 collected – was enough to create change for the Raiders.

But let me remind you – Gruden’s actions pale in comparison with those of Washington Football Team owner Dan Snyder.

Where are the other 649,995 emails? What about those from Snyder and former team general counsel Dave Donovan concerning the $1.6 million sexual assault settlement a female employee received in 2009? What about the email I wrote to human resources  in October 2005 concerning harassment from a football player (which was disregarded)?

In case you forgot about “the good bits” videos produced by Larry Michael, the team’s then-lead broadcaster and senior vice president, let me remind you. Michael and his team produced two videos featuring the naked bodies of WFT cheerleaders – filmed without their knowledge or consent – and one former employee said they were made specifically for Snyder. The soundtrack for the videos was a mashup of Snyder’s favorite songs. (Both Michael and Snyder have denied these claims.)

I have been very vocal since the second Washington Post exposé in August 2020. Although I get anxious about public speaking, I chose to put myself out there to be the voice of the women I love, admire and once managed at the WFT. Since these videos came to light, over 40 alumni came together to fight back (some of whom mediated a settlement, which they deserve to have). However, the money came with more of Snyder’s favorite things – nondisclosure agreements. They were silenced. I could not remain silent anymore and chose to speak out on their behalf.

I went to social and local media to share this story. I started a campaign on Feb. 18, urging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to “do the right thing for women,” which has reached nearly 40,000 signatures. I had many sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden days throughout the more than 10-month investigation. I was intimidated by the power dynamics during my time at the team and have seen the wrath of Snyder. (You may recall the Washington City Paper history.)

Snyder has been trying to take down Bruce Allen, former general manager, for months because he claims that Allen was the one to plant stories to defame him. In late April and early May, Snyder sent private investigators to over a dozen alumni cheerleaders’ homes to inquire about their relationship with Allen or if they’d been in contact with him.

When intimidation didn’t work, the WFT tried money. Six days after I launched the campaign, team attorneys verbally offered a group of us money to sign a nondisclosure agreement  that would prohibit us from speaking publicly. This was never about the money for me. It’s always been about justice for my sisters and the employees with whom I survived in the trenches over the years. We didn’t take the money.

Every workplace has a Jon Gruden. There should be a higher standard in corporate America.

After Tuesday’s news that Gruden was resigning, it is more apparent than ever that the NFL’s handling of Beth Wilkinson’s investigation was a sham. Over 120 witnesses came forward to participate, including men and women I deeply respect. And yet, what do we have to show for this investigation? Astonishingly little. The NFL did not require Wilkinson to produce a written report. She was only required to give a series of “oral reports.”

That’s awfully convenient. It means we can’t corroborate the victims’ claims. It means there is nothing “official” to release to the public. But that’s not for lack of evidence. I know some of these stories and how deeply disturbing they are.

Since the investigation wrapped up, the NFL gave the Snyders a little slap on the wrist and then the WFT announced they would make Tanya, Dan’s wife, co-CEO. She recently went on a podcast and dismissed those of us who participated in this investigation and blamed her and her family’s pain on the media. We experienced decades of mistreatment, harassment, belittlement and abuse, and all she can say about the “lump in her throat” is this: “People can say whatever.” I’m not sure what is more brutal – the disgusting abuse we endured at the hands of WFT or a fellow woman turning a blind eye.

She spoke on a podcast – it was a direct quote from a conversation. But Tanya Snyder later came out with a statement saying that they’ve “apologized numerous times” (not true), and that the comments were “selectively quoted and taken out of context.” She belittled us and lied. This is not behavior that shows an organization making any progress at all.

We feel invisible. Deflated. Marginalized. Diminished. I gave 14 years of my life to the WFT, and I couldn’t even get a written report. Did you know the Wells Report was 243 pages? Two hundred and forty-three pages for deflated balls, but we have sexual harassment, assault, abuse over decades, and no written report? We've asked the NFL to meet and discuss the findings of the investigation and they have not agreed.

I am a daughter, a sister, a wife. I am called Mommy by two amazing boys who are learning how to respect women and will know what sexual harassment means. I hope that we will continue to press on for the truth, as it will always set you free. And if Washington fans deserve anything, it is to be free of the toxic, drama-filled, misogynistic culture that comes from the top.

Release the damn report.

Melanie Coburn is a former Washington cheerleader who was the squad’s marketing director from 2001 to 2011.

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