By The Washington Post · Will Hobson, Liz Clarke · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, SPORTS, FOOTBALL
They cried about the former chief operating officer's expletive-laced tirades, Applegate said, when she recalled him calling her "f-----g stupid" and then requesting she wear a tight dress for a meeting with clients, "so the men in the room have something to look at." They cried about a wealthy suiteholder who grabbed her friend's backside during a game, Applegate said, and the indifference the team's top sales executive displayed when she complained.
But most of all, Applegate said, they cried about the realization their dream job of working in the NFL came with what they characterized as relentless sexual harassment and verbal abuse that was ignored - and in some cases, condoned - by top team executives.
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. This story involved interviews with more than 40 current and former employees and a review of text messages and internal company documents.
Team owner Daniel Snyder declined several requests for an interview. Over the past week, as The Post presented detailed allegations and findings to the club, three team employees accused of improper behavior abruptly departed, including Larry Michael, the club's longtime radio voice, and Alex Santos, the team's director of pro personnel.
In a statement, the team said it had hired District of Columbia attorney Beth Wilkinson and her firm, Wilkinson Walsh, "to conduct a thorough independent review of this entire matter and help the team set new employee standards for the future."
"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," the team said.
The allegations raised by Applegate and others - running from 2006 to 2019 - span most of Snyder's tenure as owner and fall into two categories: unwelcome overtures or comments of a sexual nature, and exhortations to wear revealing clothing and flirt with clients to close sales deals. Among the men accused of harassment and verbal abuse are three former members of Snyder's inner circle and two longtime members of the personnel department:
Michael, senior vice president of content and "the voice of the Washington Redskins." Seven former employees said Michael routinely discussed the physical appearance of female colleagues in sexual and disparaging overtones. In 2018, Michael was caught on a "hot mic" speaking about the attractiveness of a college-aged intern, according to six former employees who heard the recording. Michael declined an interview request and retired Wednesday.
Santos, the club's director of pro personnel, was accused by six former employees and two reporters who covered the team of making inappropriate remarks about their bodies and asking them if they were romantically interested in him. In 2019, Santos was the subject of an internal investigation after Rhiannon Walker, a reporter for The Athletic, informed club management Santos had pinched her, told her she had "an ass like a wagon," and repeatedly asked her to date him, Walker said in an interview with The Post. Nora Princiotti, a reporter for The Ringer who formerly covered the team, also said in an interview that she was harassed by Santos. Santos, who was fired this past week, declined to comment.
Richard Mann II, assistant director of pro personnel, who in one text message obtained by the The Post told a female employee he and his colleagues debated whether her breasts had been surgically enhanced and in another text message told another female employee to expect an "inappropriate hug . . . And don't worry that will be a stapler in my pocket, nothing else." Mann, who also was fired last week, declined to comment.
Dennis Greene, former president of business operations, implored female sales staff to wear low-cut blouses, tight skirts and flirt with wealthy suite holders, according to five former employees, including Applegate. Greene's 17-year career with the club ended in 2018 amid a scandal over the revelation he had sold access to Redskins cheerleaders - including attendance at a bikini calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica - as part of premium suite packages. Greene declined to comment.
Mitch Gershman, former chief operating officer, who Applegate said routinely berated her for trivial problems such as printer malfunctions while also complimenting her body. Two other former female employees supported Applegate's account of her sexual harassment and verbal abuse by Gershman, who left the team in 2015.
"It was the most miserable experience of my life," Applegate, now 31, said of her year working as a marketing coordinator for the club, which she left in 2015. "And we all tolerated it, because we knew if we complained - and they reminded us of this - there were 1,000 people out there who would take our job in a heartbeat."
Gershman, in a phone interview, denied Applegate's allegations.
"I barely even remember who she is," Gershman said. "I thought the Redskins was a great place to work . . . I would apologize to anyone who thought that I was verbally abusive."
No woman accused Snyder or former longtime team president Bruce Allen of inappropriate behavior with women, but they expressed skepticism the men were unaware of the behavior they allege.
"I would assume Bruce [Allen] knew, because he sat 30 feet away from me . . . and saw me sobbing at my desk several times every week," Applegate said.
Allen, who was fired at the end of last year, did not reply to interview requests.
While Applegate and others did not accuse Snyder of acting improperly with women, they blamed him for an understaffed human resources department and what they viewed as a sophomoric culture of verbal abuse among top executives that they believed played a role in how those executives treated their employees.
Snyder routinely belittled top executives, according to three former members of his executive staff, perhaps most intensely Greene, the former sales executive, whom Snyder mocked for having been a male cheerleader in college. After one executive staff meeting, according to one former employee, Greene said Snyder had ordered him to do cartwheels for their entertainment.
"I have never been in a more hostile, manipulative, passive-aggressive environment . . . and I worked in politics," said Julia Payne, former assistant press secretary in the Clinton administration who briefly served as vice president of communications for the team in 2003.
Payne did not witness or endure sexual harassment, she said, but she supported what many other former employees said about the culture under Snyder.
"With such a toxic, mood-driven environment, and the owner behaving like he does," said Payne, "How could anyone think these women would go to HR?"
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On the first day of working for the team, new employees are given a manual that describes the organization's core values.
"Congratulations on becoming a member of an elite team of people involved in a franchise with a tremendous past and a promising future," the handbook states. "The level of media and public scrutiny of the Washington Redskins magnifies any inappropriate or unprofessional behavior, so a high level of professionalism is required from all employees."
While there is a section discussing sexual harassment, many former employees said, if there is a process for handling sexual harassment complaints, it's never discussed in the club's brief onboarding process.
The team's human resources staff consists of one full-time staffer - who also performs administrative duties at team headquarters - responsible for more than 220 full-time employees, according to several former employees.
"There's no HR," said one former veteran female employee who left in 2019. "And there was never a reporting process, nor was one explained to new employees about how you should report something."
In a statement, the Redskins pointed out the team hired a new human resources manager in 2019, and this employee works with the team's legal department on any issues involving employee conduct.
Former women employees said the first few weeks at Redskins Park also often came with an informal, but invaluable, orientation administered privately by veteran female employees who warned them to avoid certain people and places, such as the staircase near the entrance to team headquarters.
Lined at the top with transparent plexiglass, the stairs descend from the lobby to the locker room and training area, and someone standing at the bottom can look up the skirt of a woman standing at the top.
One former female member of the executive staff learned this lesson early in her tenure, she said, when she looked down to see a male trainer, two floors down, staring right back up, walking step for step with her.
"He even leaned to get a better angle," the woman said. "He wasn't even trying to hide it."
For many women, their jobs with the team were their first out of college. Several expressed a sense of shame, and said they realized they had accepted behavior years ago they now realize was inappropriate, such as an unwanted shoulder rub or a compliment about their legs.
"It was my first job, so I kind of normalized it," said a woman who worked for the club for several years and departed in 2019. "And it was happening to every single one of my female co-workers under the age of 40."
Training camp in Richmond, Va., in August was a hotbed of improper activity, several women said. Some encouraged younger female staffers to avoid the Tobacco Company, a bar and restaurant in a stately brick building frequented by team officials.
"I was propositioned basically every day at training camp," said one female employee who worked for the team in the mid-2010s for several years. The overtures came in the form of a whispered invitation from one coach at the Tobacco Company to his hotel room, she said, as well as emails and text messages from other male staffers, also disclosing their room numbers and offering invitations for late-night visits.
Attending the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, former female employees said, also heightened the likelihood of unwanted attention and propositions at places such as Prime 47, a steakhouse and bar popular with league officials and journalists.
I have never been in a more hostile, manipulative, passive-aggressive environment . . . and I worked in politics. . . . With such a toxic, mood-driven environment, and the owner behaving like he does, how could anyone think these women would go to HR?
At the 2019 combine, Rhiannon Walker, new to the Redskins beat for The Athletic, arrived at Prime 47 to learn that Santos, the club's scouting director, had been asking her reporting colleagues if they thought she might be interested in him, she said in a phone interview this week. They tried to discourage him - outside of the ethical concerns, Walker said, her colleagues knew she was in a committed relationship and wouldn't ever date a married man - but Santos was undeterred, she said she was told upon arriving.
Santos approached, she said, and the conversation started innocently. He showed her photos of his wife and young daughters on his phone, Walker recalled, reading from notes she later provided to her company's lawyers describing the incident. Then Santos told Walker she had "worn the f---" out of her jeans the day before, she said, and asked if she would date him, if they were single.
"I told him that I do have a girlfriend, and he does have a wife, so we don't need to play hypotheticals here," Walker said. "I was pretty blunt."
Santos kept attempting to flirt for several minutes and told Walker he would "wear me down with his charm," she recalled. Then he pinched her on the hip, in full view of other team employees and reporters, she said. Walker felt humiliated, she recalled, and concerned some people who saw what had happened would think she had welcomed the attention.
"It felt like pretty much the worst thing in the world," Walker said. "He didn't care. He thought it was funny."
Walker later filed a complaint with the team. In a statement, The Athletic supported her account, and confirmed the company's attorneys spoke with Redskins management about Walker's allegations.
"The Athletic unequivocally stands by Rhiannon Walker's account of the harassment she endured from Mr. Santos," the company said.
Soon after her incident with Santos, Walker said, she learned of another reporter who alleged she had endured similar harassment: Nora Princiotti, who covered the team for the Washington Times in 2017.
Princiotti, in a phone interview, said on two or three occasions, Santos pulled his SUV alongside her as she was walking out of Redskins Park, and offered commentary on her body and wardrobe.
"He told me I had a great ass for a little white girl," Princiotti said. "The general sentiment was that I should wear less clothing."
Like Walker, Princiotti said she was struck by how brazenly Santos acted, as well as other team employees who commented on her looks. Princiotti said one male member of the communications staff once told her she had a nickname around Redskins Park: "Princihottie."
"It was gross and also just a terrible pun," she said. "There was an overwhelming sense that no one would ever do anything about this stuff."
Walker informed Tony Wyllie, then the team's vice president of communications, about Princiotti's allegations, she said, and Princiotti confirmed she spoke to Wyllie about Santos. Wyllie, who left the team in 2019, declined to comment for this story. A few weeks later, team lawyers informed The Athletic that Santos had been disciplined but declined to specify how, Walker said.
Santos was fired last week, after The Post informed the team of allegations raised by other former female staffers. One former female staffer said she received a text, one night after work, in which Santos told her he had wanted to kiss her that day in the break room. Another former female employee said Santos told her, as she was walking into the office one day, she had a "nice butt" and asked her to turn around for him.
"I am done with the NFL," the woman said. Her experience with the Redskins "has killed any dream of a career in pro sports."
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Santos was fired along with his top scouting assistant Richard Mann II, who sent flirtations, sexual texts to two former female employees they provided to The Post.
In an exchange with one former female colleague, Mann joked about getting an "inappropriate hug." In two exchanges with another female colleague, Mann informed her he and his colleagues were discussing whether her breasts had been surgically enhanced - "real or fake is the debate," he texted - and offered to bring her lunch for a favor.
"If I bring that I want to squeeze your butt," Mann texted.
"Unfortunately that was (is?) the culture," one of these women texted a reporter, after forwarding the messages. "So we felt like we had to roll with it."
In a phone interview, new team Coach Ron Rivera declined to discuss why Santos and Mann were dismissed.
"We're trying to create a new culture here" Rivera said. "We're hoping to get people to understand that they need to judge us on where we are and where we're going, as opposed to where we've been"
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To fans and the general public, Larry Michael is perhaps one of the more consistent aspects of a franchise marked by regular personnel turnover. The team's lead play-by-play broadcaster for the past 16 years, Michael also served as senior vice president in charge of content, overseeing the club's website and video department.
But among his mostly male staff on the video and digital teams, Michael for years had become a growing source of discomfort, according to four former employees, because of his penchant for off-color commentary about female colleagues.
"It was always objectifying; it was always derogatory. . . . I wouldn't even know what to do. I would just shake it off," one former male staffer said. "We're all just afraid for our jobs and trying to make it."
During training camp in 2017, Michael saw a young woman from the sponsorship staff walk by and turned to one of his staffers and commented on her "tight ass," before adding a remark about her social life, the staffer said.
"He said you can't mess with her, though . . . because you know she's f-----g every guy on the team, right?," said this staffer, who afterward mentioned the comment to four colleagues, including a veteran female employee.
"I was mortified, but not surprised," the female employee said. Years earlier, Michael had squeezed this woman's face after a late-night taping of a team program and told her "she was so cute," she said.
Another comment, recalled by two former male employees, involved a female colleague of Egyptian descent.
"He said it looked like she definitely had a little Greek in her because of her lighter skin complexion, as well as that ass," one former male employee said.
None of these employees filed formal complaints, they said, because they never thought anything would come of it.
"They're not going to get rid of 'The Voice of the Redskins' . . . over a $30,000-a-year marketing manager," one former male staffer said.
Michael was the subject of one complaint in 2018, according to six former team staffers, after he was recorded discussing one female intern during practice one day. The incident occurred as Michael was being filmed for a team video production, former employees said, and an intern walked by.
Former team employees who heard the video had different recollections of the precise wording, but agreed Michael remarked about how attractive he found the intern, who was in college.
"It was disgusting," said one former female employee who heard the audio. "This is a grown man who could be my grandfather, and he's talking about someone younger than me."
One female employee complained about the video to the club's legal department, and a team attorney took the hard drive from the employee who had discovered the video. When the lawyer returned the hard drive, this employee said, the file had been deleted. It was unclear to staffers aware of the incident whether Michael was disciplined.
"The club's legal department removed the file from the hard drive and maintained the file in the organization's confidential HR/Legal records where it still resides," the team said in a statement.
On Wednesday morning, The Post requested an interview with Michael and informed club officials about comments attributed to Michael by his former employees and the "hot mic" incident.
Hours later, Michael announced his retirement.
"After 16 great years my time with the organization is over," Michael said in a statement. "On to the next chapter."
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Before Emily Applegate changed jobs in December 2014, moving from working at FedEx Field to the team's marketing department in Ashburn, Va., she was warned by co-workers about her new boss, Mitch Gershman, she recalled. The club's chief marketing officer had a reputation for an explosive temper, Applegate said, but not sexual harassment.
"I guess I was lucky enough to be more his type," Applegate said.
Gershman often commented on her body or appearance, she said, in tandem with insults about her work performance.
"He would tell me I was stupid for not being able to print something out the way he wanted, and directly follow with, 'Oh, did you run extra yesterday, you look really good,'" Applegate said.
Gershman told Applegate never to wear flats, only heels, she said, and suggested form-fitting dresses for nighttime events with premium clients. He also inquired about her dating life, and expressed concern she didn't have a boyfriend, she said. In a text message exchange Applegate provided to The Post, she asked him about his plan for an upcoming sales meeting.
"Not part of it. No worries. Go find a dude!!" he replied.
There were also routine outbursts of rage, Applegate said, such as when Gershman got lost on the way to Joe Theismann's Restaurant in Alexandria, Va., after asking her to print out directions for him.
"All he had to do was type it in a GPS, and he spent 20 minutes screaming at how f-----g incompetent I was for not giving him proper directions," she said. "I would leave work crying probably four days out of the week."
Gershman, in a brief phone interview, alternately denied and said he didn't recall conversations referenced by Applegate.
"I can't comment on something that I can't remember," he said.
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One other team executive repeatedly commented on Applegate's appearance, she said: Dennis Greene, who held the high-pressure job of overseeing sales of luxury seating and premium suites at FedEx Field.
On one occasion, Applegate said, Greene complimented her on leggings she was wearing.
"He made a comment about how great I looked in these leggings because they were so tight," she said. "That was actually the only time Mitch said something like, 'Dennis, you can't say something like that.' "
Women who worked for Greene hold conflicting feelings about their former boss. While they acknowledge he made inappropriate remarks and pressured them to wear revealing outfits and flirt with current and prospective suiteholders, they also were aware Greene faced tremendous pressure from Snyder to sell expensive seats for a team whose on-the-field product often made his job challenging.
Snyder "would humiliate Dennis in front of other executives because he was a cheerleader in college . . . and Dennis took everything. He did everything and anything he had to, to make sure those suites were sold out year after year," one former saleswoman said.
But even those sympathetic to Greene said his conduct left them with emotional scars. One saleswoman, who worked in the 2005 to 2010 time frame, recalled that Greene repeatedly offered to connect her with a plastic surgeon if she wanted breast enhancement surgery. He said he knew a doctor who had performed several procedures for cheerleaders, she recalled, and he could "get her a great rate."
"Reducing a young woman to thinking that she can only do her job well if she wears a certain thing or exposes part of her body is demeaning," this former saleswoman said. "It puts women in their place."
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Over the past few days, Applegate said, she has received messages from several former Redskins co-workers who have asked if she's concerned about potential retaliation she could face from the club. She has told them she's not concerned, she said. She has no interest in working in professional sports again, took the LSATs this week, and is studying for law school.
"I don't see what I have to be afraid of," she said. "I'm just telling the truth."
To some of her former colleagues, there is one anecdote from Applegate's time with the team that troubles them most. In 2015, Applegate said, she was pulled aside by Eric Schaffer, the club's general counsel and senior vice president, who left earlier this year.
Schaffer was appalled by the verbal abuse Applegate endured from Gershman, she said he told her, and he offered to serve as a witness or connect her with a lawyer if she wanted to file a formal complaint. Applegate declined, and said she feared making an issue of Gershman's conduct would mark the end of her career with the team.
Applegate regards Schaffer as one of the few male team executives who treated her well. Some of her former colleagues, however, expressed outrage that Schaffer didn't file a complaint of his own. According to the employee manual, "all supervisory and management personnel of the Redskins organization are expected to take immediate and appropriate action to prevent or stop harassment in the workplace of which they become aware."
Schaffer declined to comment. Applegate said she understands why he didn't make an issue of her treatment in 2015. It's the same reason she never filed a complaint.
"I needed to keep my job," she said. "When it comes down to it, 98 percent of people make decisions on stuff like this based on needing to keep their jobs . . . which is why this stuff goes on for so long."