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Ex-Washington football employee brings new harassment claim against owner Dan Snyder

Tiffani A. Johnston, former marketing manager and cheerleader for the Washington Football Team, speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee roundtable on sexual harassment in the workplace on Capitol Hill on February 3, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
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Tiffani A. Johnston, former marketing manager and cheerleader for the Washington Football Team, speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee roundtable on sexual harassment in the workplace on Capitol Hill on February 3, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

Updated February 3, 2022 at 1:24 PM ET

Just a day after the Washington Football Team rebranded itself the Washington Commanders, a former cheerleader and marketing manager for the team brought a new allegation of sexual harassment against longtime team owner Dan Snyder.

At a roundtable on Capitol Hill focused on toxic workplace culture, Tiffani Johnston, who worked for the team for 8 years until 2008, described a work dinner at which Dan Snyder placed his hand on her thigh under the table and later, with his hand on Johnston's lower back, pushed her aggressively toward his limo and asked her to ride with him.

"I learned that the only reason Dan Snyder removed his hand from my back and stopped pushing me towards his limo is because his attorney intervened and said, 'Dan, Dan, this is a bad idea,'" Johnston told lawmakers. The next day, Johnston, who was 24 at the time, said she was told by a senior coworker not to report the incident to anybody.

Five other former employees of the Washington Football Team also participated in the roundtable, hosted by the House Oversight Committee. All described a workplace where sexual harassment and verbal abuse was rampant, with senior executives among those taking part and no human resources department to report to.

"I can't recall a time that I didn't experience or fear sexual harassment," said former director of marketing and client relations Rachel Engleson, who began her career with the team as an intern. "It was just a pervasive part of the culture and an unavoidable rite of passage being a woman who worked there."

Another former employee, Melanie Coburn, who worked both as a cheerleader and in marketing, described a work trip to Aspen, Colorado, where a colleague was "hazed to drink despite being a recovering addict" and afterwards, prostitutes were invited to Snyder's house.

"The culture and environment in those offices was deplorable, like a frat party run by a billionaire who knew no boundaries," she said.

In a statement sent to NPR, Dan Snyder apologized for misconduct that took place "at the Team" and pointed to the work the team has done to revamp its policies, procedures and personnel, citing "vast improvement in Team culture over the past 18 months."

But he called the allegations leveled against him personally today "outright lies."

"I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person," he said in the statement.

Allegations of rampant sexual harassment surfaced in 2020

It was not the first time some of the former employees had shared their accounts publicly. In July 2020, the Washington Post published the first of two exposes, with 15 women alleging sexual harassment while working for the team. The women described being subjected to inappropriate comments about their bodies and clothing, unwanted advances and improper touching by senior executives. The second story focused on a lewd video produced internally that pieced together outtakes from a cheerleader photo shoot.

According to the Washington Post, the team had just one full-time human resources staffer prior to 2019, and there was no process for reporting harassment.

Later in 2020 came another explosive story. The Washington Post reported that in 2009, the Washington Football Team had settled a sexual harassment claim brought by a former employee against Snyder for $1.6 million. Snyder admitted no wrongdoing.

An NFL investigation resulted in a $10 million fine

The Washington Football Team launched an investigation into its toxic work culture shortly after the Washington Post's first story published in July 2020. At the end of August, the NFL took over the investigation, and on July 1, 2021, the league released a brief summary of its findings, citing bullying, intimidation and a general lack of respect in a "highly unprofessional" workplace. Ownership and senior management paid little or no attention, the investigation found. The team, estimated by Forbes to be worth $4.2 billion, was fined $10 million.

The investigation produced no written report. Pressed to explain why the NFL would not release detailed findings that could shed light on the magnitude of the problems, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last October that the league wanted to protect the privacy and anonymity of those who came forward.

At the roundtable on Capitol Hill, the former employees accused the NFL of a coverup and pressed for a full report.

"Let's be very clear. The people that I know that participated in this investigation wanted and expected a report," said former marketing director Engleson. "There must be transparency, and only then can we have accountability."

Emily Applegate, who worked in marketing, premium client services and ticket sales, called for Goodell to resign.

"Beginning with new leadership from the top of the NFL will create change within throughout all 32 teams," Applegate said.

The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Democrats have called for transparency from the NFL

Ahead of today's roundtable, the House Oversight Committee had called on the NFL to release all individuals involved in the allegations from nondisclosure agreements. It also asked for documents and communications obtained in the investigation as well as its underlying findings.

"The WFT and the NFL, among the most prominent platforms in America, should be setting a higher standard for others, not avoiding accountability and not covering up sexual harassment," said Illinois Democrat Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi at the roundtable today.

"This is the beginning, not the end, of holding the rich and powerful accountable, and protecting women across America from workplace sexual harassment," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.