Commanders’ ‘new culture’ keeps bumping up with the old one

Just before coach Ron Rivera on Wednesday tried to defend the new and improved culture of the Washington Commanders, there was an unfortunately timed and slightly awkward — given the controversies surrounding the organization — social media post from a team employee.

Jackie Gorman, Washington’s senior director of global events, posted a picture of herself and three other team executives sitting on a yacht in France. The social media post came on the same day that lawmakers on Capitol Hill questioned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the league’s handling of the team’s sexual harassment scandal. On the same day that lawmakers vowed to subpoena owner Dan Snyder for skipping the hearing to attend an awards ceremony in Cannes.

The optics of the photo were already bad. The hashtag Gorman included made it even worse —“#workwithprettypeople,” she wrote.

On Wednesday, on his own social media account, Rivera urged fans to note the improvements the team has made to the organization-wide workplace. Instead, the coach’s post featured a handful of replies that linked to the picture in France. One fan wrote, “you sure about that coach?”

The episode underscored the difficulties Rivera and Co. have encountered while working for Snyder. No matter how much the group does to “change the culture,” there always seems to be something to contradict the claims of progress.

“These investigations into inappropriate workplace issues predates my employment,” Rivera wrote. “I cannot change the past, but I would hope that our fans, the NFL and Congress can see that we are doing everything in our power to never repeat those workplace issues. And know that our employees are respected, valued and can be heard.”

Rivera’s statement was part of a series of efforts the team used to shift the narrative generated from Wednesday’s congressional hearing.

The team also e-mailed employees a letter titled “A Reminder of Two Years of Progress.” The letter — signed by Dan and Tanya Snyder and team President Jason Wright — detailed the team’s overhaul of executives, noting that half of the team’s 16 vice presidents are women, five of the team’s senior leadership positions are filled by Black executives and there have been staff changes in 90% of senior roles.

The Commanders, the Snyders wrote, are one of the most diverse teams in the NFL. And that, to be fair, is true. Wright is one of the few Black team presidents in the league, and he has overhauled the team’s business side since his hire in 2020. The team also made history by hiring Julie Donaldson to be the league’s first female radio broadcaster and making assisting running backs coach Jennifer King the first Black woman to land a full-time coaching gig in the NFL.

“We believe the statements that have been made in the critical media of our organization do not accurately reflect our positive transformation and the current reality of the Washington Commanders organization that exists today,” the letter reads. “There is simply no committee more knowledgeable on the Washington Commanders than our own team members.”

But as much as Washington tries to distance itself from the past, as much as Rivera maintains the sexual misconduct scandal happened before his arrival, the perception persists.

If really things are different, if team employees are truly valued, skeptics ask, why did Snyder send private investigators to the homes of former cheerleaders who participated in the league’s probe of the team’s workplace? That conduct, detailed in a 29-page memo from the congressional committee investigating the Commanders, went on as recently as the spring of 2021 — more than a year after the staff overhaul.

The team’s penchant for controversy hasn’t disappeared under Rivera. Just this month, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio created a firestorm when he referred to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot as a “dust-up.” That led Rivera to issue a $100,000 fine to Del Rio, a punishment that was also brought up in Wednesday’s hearing by Ohio Republican Jim Jordan.

And last season, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the team’s facility in Ashburn as part of an investigation into team trainer Ryan Vermillion. Vermillion — one of Rivera’s first hires — has not been charged with a crime, but he was placed on administrative leave and ultimately did not return.

And, of course, there are the ongoing investigations into the charges of sexual harassment and financial impropriety within the organization.

It’s a reality that often undercuts Rivera and his team’s efforts to highlight what they see as a new and improved culture.

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