TINSMAN: It's time to retire nondisclosure agreements in sports

Brian Tinsman
July 17, 2020 - 3:38 pm

I knew exactly when the much-anticipated article on the Washington Redskins hit the Washington Post website on Thursday afternoon because it was emailed, texted and IMed to me by more than a dozen friends and family.

Ping. Buzz. Ding. Each link to the article was accompanied by a disgusted reaction.

For those who hadn't heard the whispers, it was shocking to read the allegations made against former members of the team's front office and scouting department.

For those of us who had worked for the team, it was a different kind of surprise.

"There has to be more. I'm guessing lawyers negotiated," read one text from a former employee.

"Good for Emily," read another, "but I wonder how much s*** the Post left out because she didn’t have a text or witness?"

The truth is, we can't know the whole truth about this story, thanks to the extensive nondisclosure agreements signed by team employees and interns.

NDAs are designed to protect a company's sensitive and confidential operating information and are commonly used by pro teams across all sports. While they do not protect businesses against charges of illegal activity, the waters are murky on allegations of misconduct.

According to online resources from criminal defense attorneys Broden and Mickelsen LLP: "Generally speaking, no type of NDA can prohibit a person from reporting a crime... However, the law is a little less clear when sexual harassment and similar crimes don't rise to the level of criminal behavior."

Article authors Will Hobson and Liz Clarke acknowledge why this story hinged on Applegate's allegations (emphasis added):

"Applegate is one of 15 former female Redskins employees who told The Washington Post they were sexually harassed during their time at the club. The other 14 women spoke on the condition of anonymity citing a fear of litigation, as some signed nondisclosure agreements with the team that threaten legal retribution if they speak negatively about the club. The team declined a request from The Post to release former female employees from these agreements so they could speak on the record without fear of legal reprisal."

And so, a dark cloud of speculation remains, threatening the good vibes that come from an offseason coaching change and team rebrand. This affects more than just the team's ability to hire young marketing professionals. It's also bad for:

  • Talent: players, coaches and minority owners care about the values of their organization;
  • Revenue: sponsors and fans of the team care about how they conduct business;
  • Reputation: the media is not going to leave this story alone, saddling head coach Ron Rivera's regime with the distraction of past sins.

"Biggest thing is we have to move on from this and make sure everybody understands we have policies that we will follow and that we have an open-door policy with no retribution," Rivera told reporters on Thursday night. "Plus my daughter works for the team, and I sure as hell am not going to allow any of this!"

Nobody's daughter deserves the treatment detailed in these allegations, and Rivera is in a unique position to ensure that. But these aren't the first allegations of sexual misconduct brought against the team.

In 2018, the New York Times and Washington Post exposed allegations made by former cheerleaders against the then-president of business operations Dennis Greene. Greene resigned weeks later, but it took more allegations to force the team's hand on systemic change.

This week, the team hired high-powered attorney Beth Wilkinson to review the organization's culture and protocols. This process should help the team and its employees moving forward, but likely falls short of justice for people like Applegate.

If the Redskins want to turn the page on team culture, now is the time to release former employees from NDAs and cease their use for new hires. Open the floodgates. What do they have to lose in banishing organizational rot?

Using NDAs hasn't protected the team from bad press, but abolishing them can ensure that accountability and transparency are enforced. Trust but verify.

Make no mistake: it will be painful. It's likely that more details or allegations of impropriety would emerge and need to be addressed. But if nothing else, perhaps the truth could set this team free to focus on, y'know, football.

Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.