'We prevailed. He's gone': What now for the women who stood up to Dan Snyder? (2024)

“It was glorious.”

Melanie Coburn’s ride pulled up to the party that most feared would never come. Hundreds of jubilant fans clad in burgundy and gold cheered and alternated chants of “F— Dan Snyder” and “Thank you, Josh.” In the crowd, she saw a familiar face.

It was Mark Ein, a D.C. businessman with whom Coburn once worked and who had just become a limited partner of the Washington Commanders, after his childhood friend Josh Harris bought the team for a North American record $6.05 billion. Coburn “beelined” for Ein and hugged him, surrendering her emotions to the moment.

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“I started bawling, and he was choked up,” she told The Athletic. “It was so nice.”

At that moment, Coburn experienced something that NFC East rivals became accustomed to during 24 years of facing Snyder’s team: victory.

It was a celebration that began one day earlier for Coburnand dozens of fellow ex-employees. On July 20, inside a conference room at a JW Marriott outside Minneapolis, NFL owners unanimously approved Harris’ purchase of the team from Snyder. Then the league released the findings from Mary Jo White’s investigation, corroborating allegations against Snyder, and fined the outgoing owner $60 million.

GO DEEPERAldridge: Three decades later, Commanders fans, and a stricken city, finally free of shared burden

“It does feel like redemption, vindication,” Coburn said the next day. “We prevailed. He’s gone, his reputation is gone and the report confirmed that it was as bad as everyone always said.”

We might never know why Snyder — who said he would never sell his hometown team — finally changed his mind. Maybe it was the financial pressure he faced after buying out his minority partners. Or the lack of a stadium solution, as local jurisdictions froze him out. Or the endless public embarrassment.

Or maybe, Snyder finally gave in because his former employees — even when their efforts looked hopeless — never gave up.

“We thought it was over.”

Twenty-one months before Snyder’s exit, things looked bleak for Coburn — who spent 14 years with Washington as a cheerleader and marketing director — and her fellow ex-employees seeking to expose the years-long toxic culture inside the franchise.

GO DEEPERDan Snyder timeline: NFL approves sale to Josh Harris, fines Snyder $60M

It was October 2021, three months after the completion of attorney Beth Wilkinson’s league-commissioned investigation, for which dozens of former employees were interviewed. The NFL had fined the billionaire Snyder $10 million and instituted a nebulous suspension — which, to this day, nobody has precisely defined — but the details of Wilkinson’s report were buried. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said there was no written report, as he requested.

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“Everybody knew it was B.S.,” said Lisa Banks, an attorney for the ex-employees, “but we seemed to be at the end of the road.”

“No one seemed to care,” said Megan Imbert, a former Washington broadcast producer. “It was mind-boggling to me. I felt like, ‘OK, are we moving on? Is this how the news cycle works?’ They’re on to the next thing.”

Emily Applegate, the first former team employee to speak on the record about her experiences with sexual and workplace harassment, felt frustrated — but also motivated.

“While that was disappointing, in my head, I was like, ‘Yeah, you chose the wrong group of people (to mess with),’” she said. “‘If anything, you just lit a fire.’ And that’s kind of what happened.”

All was silent. Then came the emails.

A handful of the 650,000 emails reviewed in the Wilkinson investigation emerged, showing then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden made racist, hom*ophobic and mysogynistic comments in messages to Washington team president Bruce Allen and others over several years. Gruden resigned on Oct. 11.

“That sparked everything,” Coburn said.

Immediately, the silence faded and dominoes began to fall, as many wondered what else was hidden in that trove of emails.

Coburn was interviewed in prime time on MSNBC and CNN and wrote an op-ed in USA Today. Congress demanded documents from Goodell.

Six former employees appeared before Congress in February 2022, including a new face. Tiffani Johnston, a former cheerleader and marketing manager, accused Snyder himself of touching her leg inappropriately and aggressively pushing her toward his limo, prompting White’s investigation.

Then came allegations of financial impropriety, spurring local and federal investigations. Any enthusiasm from D.C., Maryland and Virginia over partnering with the Commanders for a new stadium evaporated.

All the while, the women continued their calls for transparency, broadcasting “#ReleaseTheReport” on social media and T-shirts and sweatshirts while pressing Goodell at league meetings and showing up in gameday parking lots.

'We prevailed. He's gone': What now for the women who stood up to Dan Snyder? (3)

From left to right, Emily Applegate, Rachel Engleson, Melanie Coburn, attorney Lisa Banks, Ana Núñez, Brad Baker and Tiffani Johnston at the U.S. Congress on Feb. 3, 2022. (Courtesy of Melanie Coburn)

In June, Goodell testified before Congress. Snyder was subpoenaed and eventually testified for 10 hours in a private deposition.

Then a bigger domino fell.

“I believe there’s merit to remove (Snyder) as owner,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said in October. “It’s gravely concerning to me, the things that have occurred there over the last 20 years.”

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Two weeks later, Dan and Tanya Snyder, his wife, announced they would “explore possible transactions” with the franchise. Six months after that, they reached a sale agreement with Harris.

It was a stunning sea change in less than two years. Before the emails surfaced, Snyder appeared impervious to ridicule, scandal or any outside pressure to sell the franchise. Many had accepted that Snyder, who turns 59 in November, would be around for decades to come.

“Anyone who says that they predicted this is lying to themselves,” said a former team employee who was granted anonymity because of fear of retribution. “I’m still surprised. Never thought we’d see the day.”

“I honestly can’t believe it’s taking this long.”

Living in Texas, Applegate tracked the sale news from a distance. She knew it would take time, but even as a sale appeared more likely, the pit in her stomach remained.

There were thoughts she couldn’t shake. For months, she had cried and sympathized with others who endured persistent sexual overtures and verbal abuse at the team’s facility in Ashburn, Va., with no help from human resources. They all feared more intrusions into their personal lives from private investigators hired by Snyder.

What if he didn’t sell?

Even on the eve of the July 20 vote — which wouldn’t be scheduled unless the league was confident in the outcome — the women wouldn’t concede anything.

“It’s not as if these (owners) have been too supportive of us in the past,” Applegate said. “We all keep saying there’s no celebration until the ink dries.”

“Goodell has approximately ($60) million reasons to make sure he protects all the owners,” Banks said, referencing the commissioner’s reported annual salary. “Even the bad ones.”

That wasn’t the only concern. They expected that White’s investigation would be concluded following the sale’s approval. Though Goodell stated multiple times the report would be released publicly, those burned by the lack of transparency with the Wilkinson report were skeptical.

“Of course, I’m going to celebrate (the sale),” Coburn said hours before the vote, “but it’s back to work tomorrow if the NFL doesn’t deliver the transparency and accountability we’ve been demanding for years.”

White’s report — a 22-page document published by the NFL moments after the sale’s approval — delivered them a day off.

It backed Johnston’s harassment claims against Snyder. It sustained former Washington executive Jason Friedman’s allegation that the team intentionally hid money (approximately $11 million) from the league’s shared coffers. White also stated that, despite public pledges to cooperate, Snyder and the organization did not do so.

“The findings do speak for themselves in both cases, particularly Ms. Johnston’s,” Goodell told reporters.

Yes, the ex-employees won. But did Snyder lose? His fine amounted to just less than 1 percent of the $6.05 billion sale price … which represented a 656.25 percent increase on his $800 million investment when he bought the team in 1999. The fine money will go toward the NFL’s legal expenses and a to-be-determined charitable donation by the league, per NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

“It sucks that he’s going to make billions and go off into the sunset,” Coburn said. “If I had it my way, he would be going to jail and unable to profit off the franchise he ran into the ground. … But if he goes away … and never comes to another Commanders/Football Team/Redskins game again, I will be very pleased.”

“I’m not sure if that (feeling) will ever go away.”

Everyone wondered who leaked the emails. Was it Snyder? Did he topple the first domino himself?

It seemed logical, even before Allen testified to Congress that NFL legal counsel Lisa Friel attributed the leak to the team. None of the Gruden emails were about Snyder, despite the Wilkinson investigation being centered on him. Antennas were also raised because the Wall Street Journal, which revealed the first Gruden email, had given the reclusive owner a soft landing spot for a rare interview four months earlier.

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Gruden’s active lawsuit against the NFL contends that the league was responsible. A recent ESPN report pondered the leak’s source, mentioning multiple possibilities. Many pointed the finger at Snyder.

“We’ve been saying that since it happened,” Applegate said, referring to group chats and phone calls among ex-employees. “I don’t think anybody should be surprised about that in any way.”

However it came about, Applegate and others are now trying to turn the page. Their stories didn’t end when Snyder became a former NFL owner.

The Wilkinson report has never been released. Nobody has been held criminally accountable for lewd videos that were secretly made using footage from cheerleader photoshoots. Many wonder what stories of misconduct have yet to be told publicly.

'We prevailed. He's gone': What now for the women who stood up to Dan Snyder? (4)

Tiffani Johnston, right, and Melanie Coburn before the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 3, 2022. (Graeme Jennings / Pool / Getty Images)

“There’s still probably a lot we don’t know,” Coburn said. “What you see in the media is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The lone public face among 15 team employees represented in the Washington Post’s first exposé in 2020, Applegate has fought to retake control of her life, even as the world has learned her story. After leaving her dream-job-turned-nightmare in 2015, she planned to go to law school, but she pressed pause.

“I kind of realized that I was putting a lot of effort into this fight,” she said. “And it definitely affected me more on an emotional, mental level than I realized.”

Applegate stewed in the recollection briefly, then laughed. “They just keep screwing me in different ways,” she said.

Undeterred, she audibled toward an MBA and will graduate this month. In the middle of a job search, Applegate wonders how she’ll be perceived by those who know her story.

“I will see if this has negatively affected anything,” she said. “Hopefully, people are appreciative and want somebody that is not going to stand for others being treated poorly or themselves being treated poorly.”

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As for that pit in her stomach, “I’m not sure if that will ever go away,” she said. “Because once (Snyder is) out completely, he will no longer have any type of reason just to calm down and leave people alone.”

Likewise, Coburn still worries for those who, like herself, “came forward at great personal risk.” Banks and fellow attorney Debra Katz repeatedly asked Goodell to condition the Commanders sale on a commitment from Snyder that he would not retaliate against their clients or others who spoke out.

“(Goodell) has ignored our concerns,” the lawyers said in a statement after the sale. “What will the NFL do to make our clients and others whose lives were deeply damaged by Snyder and his organization whole?”

GO DEEPERTrotter: Daniel Snyder is gone, but the NFL is still a long way from closure

While that question remains unanswered, the group’s outlook is far brighter these days.

Banks told her clients they would congregate in her D.C. office after the sale and truly celebrate together. Talk of attending a Commanders home game en masse — for fun — came up.

Coburn’s life is plenty active. She and her husband, Derek, are raising 11- and 13-year-old boys and have operated a business networking communitytogether for 12 years. She also chairs a local nonprofit, Homes Not Borders, that sets up apartments for local refugees. Coburn remains a respect-in-the-workplace advocate and plans to promote legislation that strengthens employees’ protections.

As for the Commanders, she would be open to discussing with the new ownership how to reintegrate former employees into alumni events. Coburn, who attended a football-dominant Maryland high school and Penn State before becoming a Washington cheerleader, plans to root for her favorite NFL team once again.

“I hope I can be a part of the fan base moving forward,” she said. “Being a football fan is in my blood.”

Like countless others, she also hopes to eliminate all traces of the former owner from the scene. Many want another name change, because the Commanders branding was Snyder’s last major decision before the sale.

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It’s unclear what’s next for the reclusive Snyder, who has moved his base operations to London. His only public comments since the sale came in a three-paragraph statement released the day after the vote. Gruden’s lawsuit, which is proceeding despite the NFL’s counterefforts, and other pending investigations will likely keep Snyder’s name in the headlines.

If given the chance, what would Coburn say to the man at the center of so much pain?

“I would say I hope this is your redemption story, and I hope you learned your lesson,” she said. “Take that money. Steward it. Do something good in this world.

“You have the opportunity to change your story. Everyone does. That’s the Christian in me. I have to believe in redemption.”

As for Applegate, she’s staying grounded, one step at a time. There are thoughts of returning to law school and smiling more often.

“It feels like things are (coming) together,” she said.

“It’s not every day that a group of women can defeat a white, billionaire man,” she added. “I’m very excited to sit down and think that through for a second and appreciate everybody else who did this with me — all the hard work, emotions and trauma.

“Just truly sit with that for a second.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Graeme Jennings /
Pool / Getty Images, Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

'We prevailed. He's gone': What now for the women who stood up to Dan Snyder? (2024)
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