Roger Goodell needs to conduct a civil rights audit to combat racism and sexual harassment in the NFL
This audit will bring public scrutiny and accountability, the only things that will bring lasting change
Last week, fired Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores and several former female employees of the Washington Football Team shook the football world when they went public with their vivid and disturbing allegations of racism and sexism, respectively. On Saturday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took an important step forward when he announced a workplace review, including the league’s employment policies and practices. But he can – and must – do more. For genuine accountability and meaningful change, the league should conduct a comprehensive civil rights audit that is truly independent and transparent. Civil rights audits are a relatively new tool to address harms and, when done right, can effect real change.
Racism has festered for far too long in the league. It is inexcusable that in a league with 32 teams and where 70% of the players are Black, there are only two Black head coaches and one multiracial head coach today, and there have been 141 white head coaches and only 19 Black head coaches since the first Black head coach was hired in 1989. The Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003 to try to address these disparities by requiring that teams consider at least one minority candidate for their head coach positions. (It was amended in 2020 to include two external minority candidates for head coach positions and at least one external minority candidate for coordinator, general manager and other senior front-office positions.) Civil rights leaders who met with Goodell this week asked him to replace the Rooney Rule.
Last week, several female former employees of the Washington Football Team publicly testified at a roundtable discussion convened by the U.S. House Oversight Committee about their work experience, marked by sexual harassment, verbal abuse and other misconduct by high-level team officials over several years. The NFL assured the former employees when they first made the allegations in 2020 that it would conduct an independent investigation of the team. Yet, the House roundtable discussion revealed that the review was not independent – at all. The league had entered into a common interest agreement with the Washington Football Team, thus undermining any pretense of independence.
Goodell frequently speaks passionately about his duty to uphold the shield – a symbol of honor and integrity for the league. But these actions – the persistent racism and sexism and lack of candor and transparency – belie that commitment. These actions do not create healthy, equitable work environments, and they erode public faith and trust in the institution.
At a time when the NFL has seen record-breaking numbers of viewers online and on television, the league risks alienating fans and miring it in damaging controversies involving workplace discrimination. America is based on the ideal that if you work hard, you can achieve anything regardless of your race or gender. Even as our nation has grappled with discrimination, professional sports has been a place where people believed that extraordinary skill was a prerequisite to participate and where racial barriers have been broken long before they were removed from the rest of society. In professional football, for example, the racial barrier was broken in 1946, when Kenny Washington became the first Black player to sign an NFL contract, nearly 20 years before all Americans would be guaranteed non-discrimination in employment under federal law. Today, the public’s belief in whether these rules and laws are having their intended outcomes is crumbling. The NFL has the opportunity to not only right these wrongs, but to be a model, once again, for other institutions in our society.
Following the Flores lawsuit, Goodell issued a memorandum to team chief executives and club presidents, acknowledging that “[r]acism and any form of discrimination is contrary to the NFL’s values” and that the results of its existing efforts to promote diversity and inclusion of head coaches have been “unacceptable.” His memorandum also calls for a review of “all policies, guidelines and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, including as they relate to gender.” This is a good first step, but he must go further and make a commitment to retain truly independent expert evaluators and to a transparent, accountable process. A civil rights audit is the tool to achieve these aims.
What is a civil rights audit? While companies regularly conduct financial or legal audits, a civil rights audit is a different, emerging new tool. A civil rights audit is a comprehensive review of an institution’s policies, practices, products and/or services and their discriminatory impact. This review is led by independent civil rights experts, engaging key stakeholders inside and outside the organization, and includes public reporting and a set of action items to address the problems and create healthy, equitable and inclusive outcomes.
As a civil rights lawyer, I have represented clients in employment discrimination claims and have led efforts to address systemic discrimination and create meaningful change. I have also served as an external stakeholder when civil rights audits were conducted by Airbnb and Starbucks. These audits were conducted in response to discrimination allegations on their platform or in their services and resulted in concrete, meaningful change. For example, after Airbnb received race discrimination complaints by people attempting to rent homes, the company hired independent civil rights experts. These experts consulted with internal and external stakeholders, including employees, Airbnb hosts, civil rights groups, travel and tourism executives, and federal and state regulatory officials, who provided their advice and input. The audit opened and concluded with public reports, which were essential to rebuilding trust with the public, particularly Airbnb hosts and customers. As a result of the audit, Airbnb adopted a targeted non-discrimination policy and a set of tools to allow Airbnb to monitor and better understand whether its new policy was having its desired impact.
The keys to a successful civil rights audit are clear: securing independent civil rights experts, engaging all key stakeholders, inside and outside, the company, and sharing the scope, analysis and conclusions with the public. These audits should serve as a useful and valuable guide to the NFL.
It has been disheartening as a football fan to watch as talented Black coaches have too often been denied promotions or treated differently from white coaches. As a woman, I have also been disturbed by the failure to hold the Washington Football Team accountable for sexual harassment at its highest levels. It is my fervent hope that Goodell does the right thing: that he conducts a truly independent, comprehensive and transparent civil rights audit. By doing so, he can uphold the honor and integrity of the shield and serve as a model for other executives across the country.