As NFL fights racism and sexism, team owners undercut the message

By Ken Belson

The NFL has taken strides to repair its image as being insensitive to issues facing women and people of color. But the league continues to be confronted by an uncomfortable reality: Its efforts can be undercut by reports of toxic behavior at the tops of its franchises.

Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets and the U.S. ambassador to Britain, was accused of making comments to embassy colleagues that they found racist or sexist, complaints that State Department investigators included in a report filed in February. The report has not been released publicly, but according to interviews with half a dozen current and former embassy employees, Johnson regularly made his female and Black staff members uncomfortable, or worse, with comments about their appearance or race.

One Black female diplomat, for example, told colleagues that Johnson disparaged her efforts to schedule events for Black History Month, accusations that were first reported by CNN. The diplomat said Johnson once asked if he had to speak to an audience that “was just a bunch of Black people,” and told her she was “marginalizing” herself.

Female employees also complained that Johnson held business lunches in London at an exclusive men’s club, which meant that only male employees could attend.

The accusations against Johnson have surfaced as the NFL grapples with two other crises of racism and sexism that reached recent turning points. Its team in the Washington, D.C., area has abandoned its longtime name and logo, which many consider a racist slur against Native Americans, after team owner Daniel Snyder resisted any change for decades. Recently, the Washington Football Team, as it is now known, also hired lawyers to investigate charges in the team’s front office of widespread harassment of women, who said male executives repeatedly commented on their looks, sent inappropriate text messages and pursued unwanted relationships.

The re-emergence of issues of discrimination involving two of the league’s most prominent team owners comes as the nation confronts systemic racism in many of its institutions, including sports teams and leagues.

Johnson has been the primary owner of the Jets since 2000, but he ceded daily control of the team to his brother, Christopher, when he was appointed ambassador in 2017 by President Donald Trump. Johnson’s arms-length distance from the team makes this different from other cases the NFL has faced.

Still, the new allegations of racism and sexism threaten to undercut the league’s efforts to promote itself as having learned from past failings. The NFL’s personal conduct policy says that “everyone” who is part of the league must refrain from “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL. The word “everyone” is emphasized with a bold font.

Yet the league has policed its owners inconsistently, in part because the circumstances around allegations that have surfaced have widely varied. The episodes surrounding Johnson and others raise fresh questions about how much the NFL can change its culture without scrutinizing those with the most power in its franchises.

“They have the same story and it keeps repeating itself,” said Upton Bell, a longtime football executive and the son of Bert Bell, a former commissioner and onetime owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. “It isn’t possible for the NFL to be progressive.”

Johnson denied the allegations on the ambassador’s official Twitter account.

“I have followed the ethical rules and requirements of my office at all times,” he wrote. “These false claims of insensitive remarks about race and gender are totally inconsistent with my long-standing record and values.”

In a statement, the NFL said it was aware of accusations of problematic comments made by Johnson, but referred questions to the State Department. The league did not specify what action, if any, it is taking.

The Jets said in a statement that since the Johnson family bought the team 20 years ago, the team has supported “many different social justice, diversity, women’s, and inclusion initiatives.”

At least one Jets player, star safety Jamal Adams, called out Johnson.

“Right is right. Wrong is wrong!” Adams wrote on Twitter. “If u don’t think this is wrong you’re part of the problem not the solution.”

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity among NFL coaches, said it was “deeply troubled by allegations of insensitive remarks” by Johnson. The group, which is named after the league’s first African American head coach, called on the league “to take appropriate action” if warranted.

The NFL has wrestled with the issues of race and sexism more prominently than most North American sports leagues. About three-quarters of its players are Black and roughly half of its fans are women, but most majority owners are white men and the league has struggled to hire nonwhite head coaches and general managers.

The league had also struggled to respond to protests against racial injustice led by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem beginning in 2016.

After the NFL neither defended nor stopped the protests immediately, Trump turned the league into a political punching bag, calling on owners, some of whom heavily supported him politically, to fire players who demonstrated during the playing of the national anthem in 2017. Trump reiterated his stance that players should stand during “The Star Spangled Banner” last month, giving new fuel to a divisive debate that has pitted fans against players — and players against team owners.

Kaepernick last played in the 2016 season, and when he went unsigned in 2017, he accused the owners of colluding to keep him out of the league because of his political beliefs. After numerous entertainers said they would not perform at NFL events in solidarity with Kaepernick, the league paid the quarterback and his former teammate, Eric Reid, several millions of dollars to settle their case.

Before the 2018 season, team owners also threatened to discipline players for demonstrating during the anthem, but the plan was quickly scuttled after the players union objected.

Renewed protests that grew after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody in May led the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, to side more firmly with players who wanted to speak out about systemic racism. After a number of star players released a video in June that called for the commissioner to explicitly say “Black Lives Matter,” Goodell apologized for not having listened to the concerns of African American players earlier.

It was a hard pivot for the league’s top executive, who works at the behest of the team owners who form what is effectively a trade association. But the statement also did not acknowledge the status of Kaepernick, who has still not received an offer from an NFL team.

Goodell’s efforts on racism have mostly centered on trainings for players and football staff, hiring practices, and on supporting community groups. The league pledged tens of millions of dollars in 2017 to organizations fighting social injustice. Last August, he hired Roc Nation, the company owned by music impresario Jay-Z to help the league with a social justice initiative.

The NFL also pledged support to the Players Coalition, a player-led group that focuses on legislative measures and other steps to fight systemic racism, and planned other cosmetic changes during games.

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