NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday at the league’s annual December owners’ meetings that an internal investigation will be conducted after claims were made earlier in the week in a lawsuit that alleged several prominent NFL Network personalities and a high-ranking executive had engaged in sexual harassment of a former wardrobe stylist.
“We take that very seriously,” Goodell told reporters. “Those issues are important to us. We want to make sure that all of our employees, whether at the NFL Network or at the league office or at clubs, are working in a safe and comfortable environment.”
Goodell’s problem became even larger on Friday when the league was informed that the Carolina Panthers are conducting an internal investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct against Jerry Richardson, the team’s owner and founder.
Sexual harassment and workplace misconduct have become serious issues affecting various businesses, politics, the entertainment industry and so many other parts of society, with several high-profile personalities and executives having been suspended or fired in recent months. Now the problem afflicts the sports world in a major way. And while the Panthers have not specified the nature of the investigation into Richardson, the fact that an NFL owner is under such scrutiny is yet another haunting reminder that workplace misbehavior has become a societal scourge that simply cannot be ignored or condoned.
It is incumbent upon Goodell to take strict measures with Richardson if his indiscretions are deemed to be unacceptable or potentially criminal. That means launching a separate investigation in addition to the internal examination being led by the outside law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and overseen by former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.
“The Carolina Panthers and Mr. Richardson take these allegations very seriously and are fully committed to a full investigation and taking appropriate steps to address and remediate any misconduct,” team spokesman Steven Drummond said in announcing the investigation Friday evening. “The entire organization is fully committed to ensuring a safe, comfortable and diverse work environment where all individuals, regardless of sex, race, color, religion, gender, or sexual identity or orientation, are treated fairly and equally. We have work to do to achieve this goal, but we are going to meet it.”
That kind of rhetoric is all well and good, as is Goodell saying he wants to make sure all league employees work in a “safe and comfortable environment.” But those words will ring hollow if Goodell does not hold Richardson to the same standards to which he holds players.
If Goodell can hand down a four-game suspension to a quarterback for allegedly using purposely deflated footballs in a game, then the commissioner must take significant action against anyone in his league who behaves inappropriately in the workplace.
That means players. That means coaches. That means executives.
And that means owners.
Richardson deserves a full and fair investigation into the indiscretions that now are subject to scrutiny, and that surely will take time to properly examine. But Goodell must remain true to his vow of workplace safety, even if it comes at the expense of one of the 32 owners who pays his salary. If the facts of the case warrant punishment, he must be willing to sanction Richardson, even if that step is rarely taken.
Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, once took the unusual measure of suspending 49ers owner Ed DeBartolo in connection with a 1998 corruption case involving former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. After DeBartolo pleaded guilty for failing to report a felony when Edwards demanded $400,000 from the 49ers’ owner to secure a casino license, Tagliabue suspended DeBartolo for a year.
The NFL network personalities, including Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, Heath Evans and Ike Taylor, have been suspended indefinitely. ESPN also has suspended former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis, who were with the NFL Network at the time the alleged sexual harassment occurred.
Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who previously was fired by NFL Network after a 2015 arrest for solicitation of a prostitute and two counts of assault, also was named in the lawsuit. And former NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger, who now is president of sports commentator Bill Simmons’ media group, has been suspended.
Goodell should deliver a strong message if Richardson is found to have violated workplace standards. If the commissioner is truly serious about creating a safe workplace for all employees, he will need to issue a severe punishment — even though Goodell technically is employed by Richardson.
Goodell has pushed for increased penalties on players who violate the league’s personal-conduct policy, and that policy applies to owners as well. If the facts warrant it, Goodell needs to apply the same punishment to Richardson that he would to anyone else in the NFL.
Otherwise, he’s merely paying lip service to a problem that deserves meaningful action.