Washington’s NFL Franchise Has Problems That Go Beyond Team Name

A damning story on team's culture prompts hiring of D.C. law firm

The Redskins have hired D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson to conduct an internal review of the team.
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Throughout the week, sports reporters who cover Washington’s NFL team hinted on social media that The Washington Post was about to publish a “bombshell” report. But even before that story detailed multiple allegations of sexual harassment made by former employees, the team responded to Adweek’s questions about what were then still just rumors.

A source told Adweek that Monday’s announcement of a team name change was not about bowing to political pressure but to deflect from the upcoming story.

Redskins director of communications Sean DeBarbieri called the idea that the name change was a smokescreen “absurd” in an email Thursday afternoon, just hours before the story was published. When asked about the departures of chief content officer and “voice of the Redskins” Larry Michael, as well as the team’s previous communications director, Tony Wyllie, DeBarbieri said that Wyllie, who was with the team for 10 years, “left because he was offered the job to be the president of the Special Olympics for North America.”

“Larry Michael retired from the team yesterday,” DeBarbieri said without additional comment. According to The Washington Post report that published after DeBarbieri spoke with Adweek, Michael was accused by seven former Redskins employees of “routinely [discussing] the physical appearance of female colleagues in sexual and disparaging overtones.” The Post said Michael abruptly retired “within hours” after reporters asked him Wednesday about the allegations.

When pressed for further comment, DeBarbieri said the team would be deferring to the official statement it gave The Washington Post, which said the following: “The Washington Redskins football team takes issues of employee conduct seriously. While we do not speak to specific employee situations publicly, when new allegations of conduct are brought forward that are contrary to these policies, we address them promptly.”

Two women who formerly worked for the team said in the article that they reported experiences with sexual harassment to Wyllie, who declined to comment for that story.

There have been other front office personnel changes in recent days, including the departures of director of pro personnel Alex Santos and assistant director of pro personnel Richard Mann II. According to several news reports, Santos and Mann were fired—notably unusual timing just 16 days ahead of the start of team training.

Both Santos and Mann were accused of sexual misconduct by former employees who spoke to The Washington Post. Detailed sexual harassment allegations against Santos also came from two reporters who covered the team for The Athletic and The Ringer.

The team has hired the Washington law firm Wilkinson Walsh to conduct “an independent review of the team’s culture, policies and allegations of workplace misconduct,” Beth Wilkinson, a founding partner of the firm, confirmed to Adweek on Thursday. The team also confirmed that it had hired the firm. Wilkinson has been on both sides of high-profile sexual assault and harassment cases in recent years, having been hired by both Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and by Trump accuser Summer Zervos.

The Washington team has been hit with harsh allegations in the past regarding sexual harassment and even sex trafficking. In 2018, five of the team’s cheerleaders told The New York Times they were brought to Costa Rica for a photo shoot. The cheerleaders said their passports were taken from them, they were made to pose naked in uncomfortable proximity to leering men and then forced to escort male sponsors to a nightclub.

The cheerleaders said that as nine out of the 36 squad members were told to go back to their rooms to get ready for the dates, some of them began to cry. They told the Times that Redskins management was “pimping us out,” adding that the dates were “mandatory” and some of the cheerleaders were “devastated … we weren’t asked, we were told.”

Adweek sent a request for comment to the Redskins Cheerleader Alumni Association and is awaiting comment.

UPDATE: Following publication of this story, The Washington Post published its report. This story has been updated with added context.

@MaryEmilyOHara maryemily.ohara@adweek.com Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.