NFL Lawyer’s WFT Emails Revive Deflategate Questions of Fairness

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  • Washington Football Team
    Washington Football Team
  • Jon Gruden
    Jon Gruden
    American football coach

In the wake of the firestorm surrounding Jon Gruden’s bigoted emails to former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen, The New York Times reported last Thursday on leaked emails sent to Allen by NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash, which could ultimately prove problematic for the league’s front office. The league is managing fallout of selected leaks from reportedly 650,000 emails obtained by NFL-hired attorneys who investigated alleged mistreatment of women formerly employed by the Washington Football Team. Per the Associated Press, a person familiar with the investigation claims no other current team or league personnel used disparaging language in the manner of Gruden. The league also said Allen’s correspondence with Pash was “appropriate.”

Pash serves as the league’s principal in-house counsel and oversees labor relations, security and internal audits. While his emails lacked elements that made Gruden’s so scandalous, the lawyer’s chummy electronic missives to Allen present a stark contrast to his communications with the New England Patriots during the Deflategate scandal, potentially calling into question Pash’s, and the league’s, impartiality in meting out discipline.

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Pash is a respected attorney who, until last week, had eschewed much controversy. He previously served as the NHL general counsel and as a partner at the elite D.C. law firm Covington & Burling. During 2014 and 2015, the last two years for which NFL executive salaries were publicly available, Pash earned $7.5 million and $6.1 million, respectively, which made him the second highest-paid NFL executive after commissioner Roger Goodell.

In addition to directing the league on matters with legal implications, Pash also advises Goodell and, like the commissioner and other league executives, is expected to be impartial in matters related to the 32 teams. Article VIII of the NFL’s constitution and bylaws endows the commissioner with disciplinary powers that are “final, conclusive and unappealable.” If Goodell is viewed as partial toward certain teams or officials, the commissioner would lose credibility with owners—the very group that employs him.

The emails published by the Times indicate Pash and Allen were friends and held similar views about politics. Neither of those features is necessarily worrisome. Pash joined the NFL nearly 25 years ago and has regularly interacted with team officials.

Yet Pash’s comments regarding how the league handled discipline for Washington could spell trouble. As detailed by the Times, Pash—at the behest of Allen—rescinded a penalty the NFL had imposed on Washington for manipulating its player injury report. He also wrote to Allen that Goodell “knows who it is and that it is not you.” The league told the Times that canceling a penalty is an ordinary practice. Pash also told the Washington executive he was confident Allen would ably address the multiyear sexual harassment scandal involving women employed by the team.

In a statement to the Times, the NFL dismissed any evidence of favoritism by Pash, noting that “Communication between league office employees and club executives occurs on a daily basis.” While such communication might occur daily, it’s what’s in the communications, not their frequency, that is at issue.

To that point, emails between Patriots executives and Pash during Deflategate clearly lacked the same camaraderie. More relevantly, the Patriots felt the league had rigged the investigation, and, through selective leaks to media, played an instrumental role in portraying the team and quarterback Tom Brady as cheaters. Many neutral scientists blasted the league’s ball deflation theories as defying basic understandings of science.

Pash’s role in Deflategate was multifaceted. He was the league’s highest-ranking attorney and Goodell also named him co-lead investigator with outside attorney Ted Wells. The NFL described the investigation and its eventual report as “independent,” a curious word given that Pash, a top league official, was so involved.

A multiday email exchange between Pash and Patriots general counsel Robyn Glaser in February 2015 starkly contrasts with the emails detailed in the Times story. The Pash-Glaser exchange occurred a few weeks after a false ESPN report that, based on sources, 11 of 12 footballs were underinflated by more than two pounds of air—a claim that, had it been true, would have been damning evidence of cheating. The February exchange had been sparked by a new ESPN/ABC story, reporting, based on sources, a Patriots locker room attendant had tried to put an unapproved football into use.

In a Feb. 18, 2015, email to Pash, Glaser demanded the league correct the ESPN story:

“This ESPN piece, which by its own admission is supported by not one but ‘FOUR sources familiar with the investigation’ is yet the latest in League leaks (because the only others ‘familiar’ with this investigation are us, and we can assure you we are not talking to ESPN or anyone else). And, once again, the information is not only inaccurate, but completely inflammatory and profoundly damaging to our brand. This is just unacceptable . . . with this latest example of inappropriate and damaging actions by League employees, we don’t see how you can once again refuse our request . . . we hereby DEMAND that the misinformation included in this ESPN piece be formally and publicly corrected by the League IMMEDIATELY.”

Pash replied about 25 minutes later, saying: “I have seen the ESPN story. I have no reason to think it came from our office . . .”. Pash declined to address Glaser’s request for a prompt league correction, instead saying he would discuss her concerns with Wells and get back to her.

This did little to mollify Glaser, who reminded Pash the Patriots had fully and promptly cooperated with NFL requests. In an email to Pash the following morning, she warned him that the team was “seriously starting to question whether we should [cooperate fully] while our public image and brand continues to be unnecessarily and irreparably tarnished by the League.”

In response, Pash made clear he wouldn’t swiftly help correct any inaccuracies in reporting. “Once the investigation is completed,” Pash wrote back, “and the facts are known, any incorrect reporting will be shown for what it is.”

Keep in mind, the Wells investigation would not be “completed” for another three months. “I don’t think,” Pash continued, “that I am trying to disclaim responsibility by saying that ESPN printed the article. I am saying that I don’t believe our office was the source of the information.”

Glaser replied that Pash’s responses “have been received [by Patriots officials and attorneys] as pretty disingenuous.” She added: “Jeff, you need to step up. I can’t tell you the number of times you’ve told me that you and your office work for us member clubs. It has been made resoundingly clear to us that your words are just a front. They have no substance at all. If you worked for us, you would have already released today a statement to the effect of ESPN, you’ve got it wrong.” Pash responded by complaining that Glaser would send such a “personal and accusatory” email.

It’s impossible to know how the NFL would have handled a football deflation controversy—and media reports about it—had the team in question been Washington. But the divergent sets of Allen and Glaser emails suggest that quality of relationships is not an irrelevant factor.

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