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  • Villanova Sports Law Blog

Congress’s Oversight Committee: How the Commanders Investigation Compares to USA Gymnastics


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By Ashley Stauber, Guest Writer, Class of 2025


**Trigger Warning**

This piece discusses sexual assault and abuse allegations that some people may find disturbing. If you or someone you know has been a victim to a sexual assault, call RAINN, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, at 800-656-HOPE (4673), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also visit their website for more information at www.rainn.org/resources. The hotline provides confidential support to anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence. Support is also available via live chat. Para ayuda en español, llame al 800-656-4673 y habla ahora.


On December 8, 2022, Congress’s Committee on Oversight and Reform released its final investigative report about the National Football League’s (NFL) handling of a hostile workplace culture within the Washington Commanders organization.[2] The Committee’s report found that Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Commanders, created a toxic environment that perpetuated abuse by ignoring and downplaying sexual misconduct for decades.[3] In addition to Snyder’s actions, the report also found that the NFL failed to prevent Snyder from interfering during the investigation.[4]


Prior to Congress’s report, the NFL hired attorney Beth Wilkinson in 2020 to conduct an investigation into the Commanders organization, which resulted in the Commanders being fined $10 million and Snyder relinquishing control of the franchise to his wife.[5] However, Wilkinson’s findings were never revealed to the public.[6] The Oversight Committee’s investigation uncovered that the NFL was repeatedly notified that Snyder used private investigators to look into and intimidate suspected sources of The Washington Post exposé about the team’s toxic workplace, mainly former employees of the organization.[7] Additionally, Congress’s report also found Snyder was offering hush money payments to former employees, and additionally filed a defamation lawsuit to obtain private emails and communications from his “perceived detractors.”[8]

As a result of its investigation, the Committee released two pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the NFL’s workplace.[9] The first piece, the Accountability for Workplace Misconduct Act, aims “to rein in the abuse of non-disclosure confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements in the workplace” to keep organizations from hiding behind Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and preventing employees from bringing forward sexual harassment claims.[10]


The second piece of this reform is the Professional Images Protection Act.[11] In August 2020 public reports revealed that some members of the Commanders executive team directed employees to take photographs of cheerleaders without their consent.[12] The cheerleaders had signed agreements with the Commanders allowing them to use their photographs for any purpose at any time.[13] The cheerleaders were unaware that their photographs were being used for improper purposes.[14] This second proposed bill is designed to discourage employers from abusing employee images, meaning cheerleaders and athletes in general will have a say in how their professional images are used.[15] Employers will be required to provide written notices to employees and obtain their consent before using their professional images. Employers who violate this bill will be subjected to fines.[16] The Committee’s proposed legislation is not only directed at the Commanders, but at the NFL in general.[17]

Has the Committee’s reform legislation worked in the past for other toxic workplaces in sports?


Before the investigation into Dan Snyder and the Washington Commanders, the Committee investigated misconduct and passed reform bills regarding other toxic work environments in professional sports.


Larry Nassar, the former doctor and USA Gymnastics National Medical Coordinator for USA Gymnastics (USAG), was convicted on state sexual abuse charges in 2016.[18] Nassar treated athletes at the USAG national training center in Texas and worked in Michigan as team physician for Twistars USA Gymnastics club.[19] More than 90 women claim they were sexually assaulted by Nassar since 1994.[20] He was sentenced in December 2017 to 60 years for child pornography, and in 2018 sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for sexual assault.[21] The appeal to his sentence was denied.[22]


Following Nassar’s conviction, the Committee launched an investigation into USA Gymnastics in 2018.[23] The Inspector General’s report found that early investigative failures may have impeded justice for victims.[24] The early investigation into the claims of sexual abuse done by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2015 was allegedly improper and led many gymnasts to file lawsuits in June 2022 against the FBI for failure to investigate Nasser when the agency had received pertinent information about the abuses.[25]


As a result of the investigation and Inspector General’s report,[26] the Committee added 70 recommendations for the USAG, including the implementation of advanced screening of coaches and the creation of online platforms for athletes to express their views and report any misconduct.[27] In addition, the House passed the Safe Sport Bill and created the US Center for SafeSport, an independent organization “authorized by Congress to help abuse prevention, education, and accountability take root in every sport, on every court.”[28] SafeSport is “[d]edicated solely to ending sexual, physical, and emotional abuse on behalf of athletes everywhere.”[29]


The Committee additionally passed oversight legislation providing safeguards to protect Olympic and amateur athletes from abuse by U.S. Olympic and Paralympic coaches.[30] This bill gives Congress the power to dissolve the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and established greater protections for abuse victims.[31] Further, the Committee introduced new regulations requiring sports board of directors to have one third of their athletic board of directors be composed of amateur athletes who represent America in competition or have in the past.[32]

The Oversight Committee’s Reform: Past, Present, and Beyond


Congress’s Oversight Committee responded to decades of abuse at USAG and within the USOPC by passing legislation to provide a necessary update in protections for American gymnasts and creating the SafeSport organization.[33] These measures are helping to create, foster, and maintain a safe environment for gymnasts and other American athletes around the country throughout their amateur and professional careers.[34]


From USAG to the NFL, the Oversight Committee’s mission remains the same: To bring widespread reform to an organization plagued with issues and create a safer work environment for all involved. After decades of being insulated and protected by the NFL and his ownership status, the Oversight Committee’s efforts and report could be the tipping point that would finally push Dan Snyder out of the Washington Commanders organization for good.


References:

[1] https://www.si.com/nfl/commanders/news/lacking-courage-washington-commanders-dan-snyder-blasted-decline-toxic-workplace-hearing [2] Field Level Media. House Committee: Daniel Snyder allowed toxic culture, NFL aided in cover-up. (Dec. 9, 2022) https://dailyprogress.com/sports/football/house-committee-daniel-snyder-allowed-toxic-culture-nfl-aided-in-cover-up/article_b6832c7f-1ac3-5191-b7c3-6fe2d33bbe9a.html [3] Id. [4] Id. [5] Close and Tucker. House Committee investigation finds NFL owner Dan Snyder led by a ‘culture of fear.’ (Dec. 8, 2022) https://www.cnn.com/2022/12/08/sport/house-committee-investigation-dan-snyder/index.html [6] Id. [7] Close and Tucker. House Committee investigation finds NFL owner Dan Snyder led by a ‘culture of fear.’ (Dec. 8, 2022) https://www.cnn.com/2022/12/08/sport/house-committee-investigation-dan-snyder/index.html [8] Belson and Rosman. Congress Says Dan Snyder and the N.F.L. Impeded Sexual Harassment Investigation. (Dec. 8, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/08/sports/football/dan-snyder-nfl-commanders-congress-investigation.html [9] Fisher. Two House Bills Introduced Coinciding with Washington Commanders Investigation. (Jun. 18, 2022) https://www.si.com/nfl/commanders/news/washington-house-oversight-committee-dan-snyder-investigation-bills-introduction [10] Lambert. New Legislation introduced due to Snyder and Commanders workplace misconduct. (Jun. 18, 2022) https://commanderswire.usatoday.com/2022/06/18/new-legislation-introduced-due-to-daniel-snyder-and-washington-commanders-workplace-congress/ [11]Industry Intelligence Inc. US House representative introduces two workplace bills; Accountability for Workplace Misconduct Act would rein in the abuse of NDAs, Professional Images Protection Act would protect employees from illegitimate use of their professional images by employers . (Jun. 17, 2022). https://www.industryintel.com/government-and-public-policy/news/us-house-representative-introduces-two-workplace-bills-accountability-for-workplace-misconduct-act-would-rein-in-the-abuse-of-ndas-professional-images-protection-act-would-protect-employees-from-illegitimate-use-of-their-professional-images-by-employers-157329863160 [12]Coleman. Rep. Maloney to introduce Bills to Combat NDA Abuse Amid Commanders Probe. (Jun. 17, 2022) https://www.si.com/nfl/2022/06/17/rep-maloney-introduce-bills-to-combat-nda-abuse-amid-commanders-probe-nfl-daniel-snyder [13]Coleman. Rep. Maloney to introduce Bills to Combat NDA Abuse Amid Commanders Probe. (Jun. 17, 2022) https://www.si.com/nfl/2022/06/17/rep-maloney-introduce-bills-to-combat-nda-abuse-amid-commanders-probe-nfl-daniel-snyder [14]Id. [15]Id. [16]Id. [17]Id. [18] Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. Investigation and Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Handling of Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Former USA Gymnastics Physician Lawrence Gerard Nassar. (July 2021) https://oig.justice.gov/sites/default/files/reports/21-093.pdf [19] Id. [20] Lansing State Journal and Indy Star. Who is Larry Nassar? A timeline of his decades-long career, sexual assault convictions and prison sentences. https://www.usatoday.com/pages/interactives/larry-nassar-timeline/ [21] Id. [22] Id. [23] CBS4 Web. House Oversight Committee opens investigation into USA Gymnastics following Nassar scandal (Feb. 8, 2018) https://cbs4indy.com/news/house-oversight-committee-opens-investigation-into-usa-gymnastics-following-nassar-scandal/ [24] Knox. U.S. gymnasts show why Congress’s oversight role is so desperately needed (Sept. 16, 2021). https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/09/16/us-gymnasts-challenge-congress-fbi-accountability-abuse/ [25] Benner and Macur. Nassar Victims Suing F.B.I. for Early Investigative Failures (June 8, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/08/us/politics/nassar-fbi-lawsuits.html [26] Id. [27] Id. [28] U.S. Center for Safesport. https://uscenterforsafesport.org/about/our-story/ [29] Id. [30] Kelley. House passes sweeping Olympics reform bill providing more oversight of coaches, executives following abuse scandals (Oct. 2, 2020) https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/519338-house-passes-sweeping-olympics-reform-bill-providing-more/ [31] Id. [32] Id. [33] Id. [34] Id.

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