Can NFL force Washington owner Dan Snyder to sell the team?

Snyder under fire after 15 former Washington employees accuse executives of permitting culture of sexual harassment, verbal abuse

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s team owners have the ability to take strong action against Washington NFL owner Daniel Snyder, including potentially forcing him to sell the franchise, following the release of a damning report on the team’s internal culture Thursday.

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A group of 15 female former employees accused Washington NFL executives of permitting a toxic workplace of sexual harassment and verbal abuse over a period stretching from 2006 to 2019, the Washington Post reported. Snyder has not been personally accused of any misconduct, though the report said the women blamed him for understaffing the human resources department and presiding over a “sophomoric” internal culture.

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Under Section 8.13 of the NFL’s constitution and bylaws, the commissioner can determine if an owner or any other official “has been or is guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League or professional football.” Based on that determination, the commissioner can issue fines or, in extreme cases, push for a vote on whether to force the owner to sell.

“The commissioner can refer that recommendation to the executive committee of the league and then, with a three-quarters vote, the executive committee can strip an owner of a franchise if they feel like it’s warranted,” Jodi Balsam, a former NFL counsel and current associate professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, told FOX Business.

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It’s unclear how the NFL plans to handle the situation. The league has yet to comment on the allegations detailed in the Washington Post’s report.

While the protocol allows for the removal of an NFL owner, it would be an unprecedented step by the league office. No owner in NFL history has ever been stripped of their team.

“Although these powers exist and there are procedures set forth in the contract that governs the owners’ relationships with each other for there to be a route to stripping somebody of their ownership, the NFL has never taken that route,”  Balsam added. “It prefers to negotiate its way out of those situations by persuasion and trying to convince the miscreant owner to depart on his own accord.”

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The Washington NFL team hired attorney Beth Wilkinson to conduct an independent probe of its internal protocols. Snyder reportedly turned down multiple requests for an interview on the situation.

"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 Washington NFL team said in a statement in response to the allegations.

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Various NFL owners have faced disciplinary action for personal or professional missteps in the past. In 1999, the NFL fined former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. $1 million after he pleaded guilty to failing to report a bribe to the former governor of Louisiana. DeBartolo later transferred control of the franchise to his sister.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended in 2014 for six games and fined $500,000 after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was fined $1 million in 2015 following the league’s investigation into the “Deflategate” scandal.

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The most recent instance of NFL action against a team owner occurred in 2018 when the league fined former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson a record $2.75 million after an investigation uncovered evidence of workplace misconduct. By the time the fine was announced, Richardson had already sold the Panthers to hedge fund billionaire David Tepper for a record $2.3 billion.

A similar situation played out in the NBA in 2014, when Commissioner Adam Silver banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and forced him to sell the franchise after he was caught on tape making racist remarks. Sterling filed a number of lawsuits related to the league’s decision, which were later settled.

Unlike Richardson and Sterling, Snyder was not personally accused of wrongdoing.

In 2018, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed to donate $10 million in lieu of a fine after an investigation uncovered “serious workplace misconduct” within the organization. Cuban was not accused of any wrongdoing and acted quickly to address the situation, hiring Cynthia Marshall as the team’s new CEO.

The NFL’s constitution is meant to provide a binding resolution in any situation involving an ownership dispute. Still, litigation is likely inevitable when the future of an asset worth billions of dollars is at stake.

Any lawsuit would likely take years to fully resolve and could hurt the team’s value in a forced sale. As a result, the league is most likely to pursue alternative means if it determines Snyder’s ownership of the franchise is no longer in its best interests.

“All of these owners see themselves in each other and can be the guy in the hot seat next time around,” Balsam said. “Whether you can get 24 out of 32 owners to agree to strip a partner of his franchise because he’s not a people person or he’s neglectful of team culture and management style, I’m not sure if that’s going to convince 24 owners. I think there are a lot of intermediate steps they’d prefer to take before stripping him of his franchise."

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