As leagues confront pro sports teams’ workplace misconduct controversies, many of which involve women accusing men of unwanted sexual advances, they are increasingly turning to high-profile women attorneys to lead investigations or to defend their interests.
Take the NFL. It recently retained former SEC chairperson and former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White to scrutinize a new set of sexual misconduct allegations against the Washington Commanders and owner Daniel Snyder. The league also turned to White in 2018, when multiple women who worked for the Carolina Panthers accused then-owner Jerry Richardson of unwelcomed sexual contact. Richardson was further alleged to have said a racial slur in the presence of a black scout.
The recently renamed Commanders have provided no shortage of legal work in recent years. In 2020, the NFL relied on former federal prosecutor Beth Wilkinson, who in the 1990s successfully argued for the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, to investigate allegations of team executives sexually harassing women.
The NFL has retained high-ranking women attorneys in other types of controversies, too. Earlier this month, the league hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who made civil rights a focus of her tenure at the Justice Department, to lead its legal defense against Brian Flores’ civil rights lawsuit.
The NFL isn’t the only sports organization retaining women attorneys to lead probes into workplace controversies.
Last year, U.S. Soccer hired former Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates to explore claims that National Women Soccer League players were subject to verbal and sexual abuse by coaches. In 2018, the Dallas Mavericks, under the guidance of the NBA, retained former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram (along with former Manhattan prosecutor Evan Krutoy) to evaluate allegations that team executives sexually harassed women.
These choices reflect a movement in the industry and trends in legal education. In 2016, for the first time in history, women made up half of all law students. Data indicates they now outnumber men. This signals how more women will enter the legal profession. Many will include sports law among their areas of expertise.
Sue Ann Van Dermyden, whom the Sacramento Kings brought in to investigate coach Luke Walton for alleged sexual misconduct, sees not only leagues but employers more generally hiring women to lead workplace investigations.
“They are high-powered, highly skilled individuals, first and foremost,” Van Dermyden stressed in a phone interview. “It may also be from the employer side that the optics look better to have a woman leading an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint. Optics can play a role.”
Van Dermyden, a founding member and past president of the Association of Workplace Investigators, also draws attention to how employers can best uncover wrongdoing and encourage accusers to come forward.
“There might be a trust level with women complainants,” she said, “when women are also the investigators.”
Vered Yakovee, a former attorney for the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, similarly emphasized that competence is the most significant explanation in this trend.
Leagues, Yakovee said in an interview, have hired high-profile women attorneys “because they are qualified based on their relevant experience and otherwise illustrious careers.” At the same, Yakovee recognized that “some may say that women are hired in these roles for other reasons.” To illustrate, she observed that “a sports entity may hope that it will be fully or partially exonerated by virtue of an investigation.” She added, “when such investigation involves alleged offenses toward women, the entity may hope that any level of exoneration by a woman’s investigation will have more persuasive value vis-à-vis the public than that of a man.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a sports attorney with expertise in sexual harassment, abuse and legal enforcement under Title IX, regards the trend as “a natural direction following research on the way women lead. They ask different questions and have different priorities,” she said.
“They’re able to find the blind spots that plague sports,” Hogshead-Makar added. “We know that male-dominated spaces have a hard time seeing their own sexism from inside the bubble.”
A winner of three gold medals and one silver medal in swimming at the 1984 Olympics, Hogshead-Makar cautioned that “group-think within the sports bubble” as “heavy” and problematic. However, “women lawyers hired from outside the sports house, with a broad range of investigatory experience, may be able to burst the logjam that gets sports leagues into trouble in the first place.”