On May 4th, California and New York attorneys general Rob Bonta (CA) and Letitia James (NY) announced a joint investigation into the NFL which will focus on workplace discrimination and hostile work environment. So far, AGs Bonta and James have issued the NFL and its executives a subpoena seeking information related to possible federal and state pay equity and anti-discrimination laws. Brian McCarthy, chief spokesman for the NFL, has said that the league will cooperate with the investigation.
This investigation is being conducted jointly among both states because the NFL has its headquarters in New York and secondary offices in California, comprising more than 1,000 employees across both offices. The joint investigation, focused on workplace discrimination and hostile work environment, will specifically look into reports about racism, unwanted touching, being passed over for promotions, sexual harassment, bullying and other forms of discrimination at the NFL.
Why now? The NFL has come under increasing scrutiny in the past few years for allegations of both gender- as well as race-based discrimination, in addition to claims of sexual harassment, within the league. Recently, many former NFL employees have come forward and prompted official responses from Congress and the attorneys general of at least six states:
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), a “hostile work environment” exists when the workplace is permeated with intimidation, ridicule and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. To succeed on this claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate not only that he or she found the environment to be offensive, but that a reasonable person would have found the environment to be hostile or abusive.
The 2022 congressional findings indicate that the NFL does have a hostile work environment for its female employees because of sexual harassment within the league. Further, the 2022 letter from the six attorneys general referenced the NFL’s discriminatory treatment of women of color and survivors of domestic violence, in particular. That, along with Brian Flores’s allegations of racism, among other pending lawsuits, tends to show that the NFL has allowed a hostile work environment with sexual harassment and gender and racial discrimination.
Based on these allegations, the NFL may have violated federal law, as well as state and local laws in both California and New York.
The investigation is potentially very serious for the league and its reputation. If evidence of systemic mistreatment of female employees, as well as racial and sexual orientation discrimination is uncovered, it could lead to significant legal and financial consequences for the NFL and its teams.
In addition to the legal and financial implications, the investigations could also have a significant impact on the NFL’s reputation. The league has faced criticism in the past for its handling of workplace issues, and these investigations could further erode public trust in the league’s commitment to creating a safe and inclusive work environment for all employees.
However, it is worth noting that the NFL and its teams have the opportunity to take proactive steps to address workplace issues and promote a more inclusive workplace culture. By implementing strong policies and training programs and demonstrating a commitment to holding themselves accountable for any instances of harassment or discrimination, the league and its teams can work to rebuild trust and mitigate the potential reputational damage caused by these investigations.
Hopefully, this investigation will raise awareness and encourage a more open and honest conversation about workplace culture and diversity in professional sports. Whether the investigation leads to legal action remains to be seen. The attorneys general could pursue civil litigation against the NFL and its officials. The investigation might also generate evidence and testimony that could be used against the league in litigation brought by private individuals, such as Brian Flores, among others.
If you have experienced workplace discrimination, contact our team of qualified employment attorneys for guidance.