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How a ‘boys club’ Raiders culture fueled turnover, lawsuits and harassment claims

Updated June 30, 2022 - 11:48 am

For many Las Vegas Raiders employees, working for the NFL organization means living out their dreams.

The prestige comes with many perks. Some workers travel, attend games and meet star athletes, all while on the job.

But there’s a constant reminder that you are dispensable, numerous former employees discovered.

They told the Review-Journal the storied franchise enabled a culture in Oakland and Las Vegas that left them feeling unsupported, underpaid and at risk of retaliation if they voiced concerns. Those complaints were echoed in multiple lawsuits filed over the course of a decade.

Women who used to work for the team also alleged a troubling pattern of harassment, forced demotions and unequal treatment, with one calling it a “boys club and the mob wrapped in one.”

“When you’re in that environment, it’s kind of like survival of the fittest,” said Nicolle Reeder, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the team in 2020 for violating California labor law.

The revelations come amid growing scrutiny of NFL workplace complaints, with a congressional oversight committee on June 22 announcing plans to subpoena the Washington Commanders owner over harassment allegations made by female employees.

The high-profile exits of at least 10 Raiders leaders in the past year, including longtime president Marc Badain and head coach Jon Gruden, underscore the organization’s ongoing internal turmoil.

Even ex-interim President Dan Ventrelle, who was fired in early May, claimed he was terminated for trying to act as a whistleblower. Ventrelle told the Review-Journal on May 6 that he was retaliated against after alerting the NFL about concerns of a hostile work environment.

But Nicole Adams, a former Raiders human resources employee, said Ventrelle was well aware of how employees were treated.

“Dan was involved in every situation that happened, every situation of harassment, every situation of a hostile working condition,” she said.

Ventrelle declined to comment for this story.

Raiders owner Mark Davis, who also owns the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, provided a single comment on June 21: “Eventually, I will have something to say about all of this, but not right now.”

‘You’re supposed to protect people’

The week after Ventrelle’s firing, the Raiders unexpectedly gave employees significant raises and bonuses, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

Several workers have described actions by front office leaders that would contradict anti-harassment and retaliation policies laid out in the team’s employee handbook, which was obtained by the Review-Journal.

At The Raider Image team retail store, one worker said he was denied overtime pay and was watched on surveillance video during his shift to monitor his productivity. In one instance, he said he was criticized for blowing his nose.

The team’s human resources leadership turned over three times in the past two years. Ex-employees also have raised concerns about how seriously complaints were handled and whether effective actions were taken.

Adams, who worked in HR for nearly five years, said she was directed to create job descriptions that allowed the company to skirt paying overtime for workers.

Some women claimed they were told how to dress and were singled out for distracting the men in the office. Adams, who lives in Las Vegas, said she repeatedly was made uncomfortable over what she wore to work, even if it was a turtleneck dress down to her knees.

“Those things were inappropriate because I had boobs and a butt,” she said. “I just started wearing pants because I felt like I couldn’t wear skirts or dresses, or I would be seen as being provocative.”

Adams also described being kissed by a former Oakland Raiders employee who worked for football operations. He was allowed to continue working there despite executives knowing about his inappropriate behavior, she said.

Ventrelle, then general counsel, “jokingly said that he would be ready to pay off anybody who came with a formal complaint against that person,” according to Adams.

Adams was fired in November 2020, after she reported feeling targeted by her supervisors in human resources. She did not accept a severance payment that would have required her to stay quiet.

She said she was so affected by her experience that she filed a complaint against the Raiders with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a partner of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission.

Adams, who is Black, accuses the team in her complaint of discriminating against her because of her race and retaliating against her after she reported concerns about pay disparity and unequal treatment.

“Every time someone was let go, every time someone was retaliated against or pushed out, every time they had to leave feeling less than themselves, it hurt me,” Adams said. “In the role of an HR professional, you’re supposed to protect people from things like that, but I had no power to do so.”

[ Lawsuits, claims against the Raiders since 2013 ]

Trouble before move to Las Vegas

Culture issues at the Raiders are not a surprise, said a former employee with knowledge of how Davis runs his organizations.

“To Mark’s credit, he does a good job of taking care of the players and providing them resources,” said the source, who was granted anonymity by the Review-Journal to prevent potential retribution. “But part of that makes you feel like it’s a facade. If you’re a truly good leader and organization builder, then you treat everybody well. Not just a certain faction.”

Before the Raiders relocated from California to Southern Nevada in 2020, three Black women in the franchise’s human resources department were offered demoted titles. A fourth woman, of Hispanic descent, was terminated. The turnover came during a time when employees depended on HR for benefits and advice amid company changes and a move to another state.

Only Adams made the move to Las Vegas. The department’s leader, Karla Tai, who did not respond to requests for comment, stayed on to help with the transition but left in December 2020. She had worked for the company for 18 years.

Jaime Stratton, an experienced Las Vegas human resources manager, became head of the department in March 2020 but was fired in April 2022. Stratton had worked at Caesars Entertainment Corp. and brought in several employees from the hospitality industry, some of whom are still with the Raiders.

In an emailed statement to the Review-Journal, Stratton said she was saddened to hear about Adams’ claims.

“The Raiders organization hired me into a newly created position in March of 2020 to ensure compliance with and modernization of its human resources and culture practices, challenges which continue to exist today,” she wrote. “I handled matters within my control properly and with unwavering integrity.”

Executive turnover

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the Raiders’ front office.

Last July, Badain, who declined to comment for this story, resigned from his position as president. He was followed by vice president of strategy and business development Brandon Doll, chief financial officer Ed Villanueva, controller Araxie Grant and chief revenue officer Mark Shearer.

Davis publicly credited some of those exits to accounting irregularities.

But the turnover continued.

In October, coach Gruden resigned after alleged racist, misogynistic and anti-gay emails written by him, uncovered during the Washington team investigation, were leaked to the national media. In January, general manager Mike Mayock was fired.

Newly hired Chief Operations and Analytics Officer Jeremy Aguero resigned in May, and Ventrelle was fired later that week. Aguero, who had joined the Raiders in October after a 24-year stint with Applied Analysis, has given little explanation for his departure and declined to comment for this story.

In a statement to the Review-Journal last month, Aguero said he had informed Davis why he was resigning and that he looked forward to taking some time off to determine his future.

Ventrelle, who spent 18 years with the Raiders, told the Review-Journal when he left that he was fired after reporting to the NFL that multiple employees had written complaints alleging misconduct.

“(Davis) did not demonstrate the warranted level of concern,” Ventrelle said.

But Ventrelle’s comments didn’t make sense to Adams, who said she came to him on more than one occasion and was eventually pushed out in late 2020, two weeks after bringing more concerns to his attention.

“He always said that he was going to help us, but instead we were all replaced,” she said.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league would not comment on allegations against the Raiders. He previously said the matter would be examined.

A $3.4 billion team

The family-owned Raiders came to Las Vegas with a chance to start fresh — and grow in value.

The franchise, which played its first season in 1960 in the American Football League, couldn’t get a new stadium built to replace the aging Oakland Coliseum. Upon arriving in Las Vegas in 2020, the Raiders left behind the worst field in the NFL and moved into one of its best venues, the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium.

The value of the Raiders franchise took off as Davis explored relocation to Southern Nevada, which was approved by his fellow franchise owners in 2017. It has increased 117 percent — to $3.4 billion — in the past five years and was ranked last year as the 29th most valuable sports franchise in the world by Forbes.

The potential sale of the Denver Broncos for $4.65 billion could raise the Raiders’ value to $3.8 billion.

Despite the absence of a president and the shakeup in the Raiders’ front office, operations at Allegiant Stadium are not expected to be affected, according to Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Hill helped create the framework that led to $750 million in public financing for the stadium, which ultimately lured the Raiders to Nevada. Allegiant Stadium has since become a major tourism driver and will host the 2024 Super Bowl.

“Obviously, turmoil is not helpful, and I encourage a strong look at all of that for a quick and positive resolution,” Hill said of the football team. “That’s what the community needs, it’s what the stadium needs, and I think it’s what the Raiders organization needs.”

‘Good company in the NFL’

Over the years, the Raiders have been accused of underpaying employees and treating them unfairly.

In 2014, Lacy Fields became the first Raiderette cheerleader to demand more.

When she joined the then-Oakland team, she learned the strict rules upfront.

Never discuss wages or fraternize with the players, she was told. And if she gained more than 4 pounds, she risked being benched for an entire game without pay.

Each cheerleader was paid a flat fee of $125 per game — regardless of how many hours they worked. The women did not receive their checks until the end of the season. They also weren’t paid for their mandatory thrice-weekly practices, but if they were late or brought the wrong equipment, they faced fines ranging from $10 to $125, according to court documents.

Fields and her teammates spent nine months making public appearances, attending photo shoots, minicamps and home games and only earned about $1,250. The team mascots and stadium concession workers earned more.

The 40 women were also on the hook for all mandatory hair, nail and makeup appointments at Raiderette-approved salons, which amounted to hundreds of dollars in costs.

“They wanted to use us, but at the end of the day, they did not care about our well-being,” Fields said. “That’s what it felt like, and that’s how they paid us.”

Something about the team’s contract felt wrong from the get-go, Fields said. She had always been paid fairly and promptly when she danced for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. When she brought up the inequity to her peers on the squad, they told her to keep quiet or risk losing her coveted spot.

She filed a class-action lawsuit at the end of the 2013 season, alleging theft and unfair employment practices. The team quickly settled and agreed to pay $1.25 million to the women who worked during the 2010 to 2013 seasons and cover their out-of-pocket expenses.

Current cheerleaders now earn at least minimum wage, meager money when it comes to the lifetime of athletic training and value the Raiderettes bring to the franchise and game-day experience.

Fields’ lawsuit also spurred a movement: Other NFL cheerleaders sued, including teams in Buffalo, Tampa Bay and New York.

But one thing Fields said she wished the lawsuit had done was spark an apology.

“They just kind of swept it under the rug, snuck in some changes and moved on like normal,” Fields said. “If they were handing us illegal contracts for 40 years, who knows what else is going on in that office?”

California attorney Sharon Vinick, whose firm represented Fields and cheerleaders for the New York Jets, said there’s still a long way to go for women in sports.

She pointed to the Dallas Cowboys, who settled a lawsuit in 2019 after four cheerleading squad members accused a team executive of voyeurism in their locker room.

Last year, the Washington Commanders were fined $10 million after dozens of female employees accused the owner, Daniel Snyder, and other top executives of harassment.

A congressional memo released Wednesday found that Snyder directed a “shadow investigation” while being investigated by the NFL for misconduct in an attempt to interfere with and undermine its findings. Commissioner Roger Goodell told the oversight committee that he does not recall the league being informed in 2009 of the allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

“The Raiders have had problems but they’ve got some good company in the NFL,” Vinick said. “Things are not going to change until these women who are being subjected to this discriminatory treatment stand up and do something.”

History of complaints

Since 2013, at least 10 lawsuits have been filed against the Raiders by former employees alleging wrongdoing and discrimination.

Former football scout Bradley Kaplan filed a lawsuit in 2019, alleging that he was demoted after telling the team he and his wife were expecting a baby during the football season.

His new position required traveling, and when he requested family leave to care for his newborn and wife, Kaplan was fired, his complaint states.

Kaplan also claimed in his lawsuit that the Raiders required some football operations personnel to sign unlawful confidentiality and nondisparagement agreements, preventing employees from “blowing the whistle” on wrongdoing by the Raiders.

The Raiders denied those claims but ultimately agreed to a $25,000 settlement last year with past and current employees who signed contracts with those provisions.

In April, Las Vegan Matthew Proscia filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the team’s apparel retail store failed to pay him and other employees at The Raider Image overtime wages for working more than eight hours in a workday, a violation of Nevada law.

Proscia, who has multiple sclerosis, said he took the job as an opportunity to showcase some of his Raiders designs.

“It’s surreal, no matter what your wage is, to pull up to an NFL stadium, and to walk on the ground of something that has the pulse of America,” he said.

But he and other employees were not allowed to leave their work areas on game day. Bathroom trips were allowed only during employees’ 15-minute breaks. If the employees weren’t actively working during their entire shift, their hours would be cut, he recalled.

“I feel it’s an abuse of power; I’m a human being,” he said.

When Proscia approached human resources with his concerns, he said he was told not to come to work the next day, which he could not afford to do.

“I don’t necessarily want a paycheck,” he said. “I want justice for what’s going on.”

Last year, the Raiders settled a lawsuit filed by Reeder, who worked as a game-day employee and lobby receptionist. Her 2020 complaint alleged that the Raiders had violated labor laws by failing to provide adequate pay and denying workers required rest periods and meal breaks.

The team settled for $325,000, which was distributed among more than 400 employees.

Reeder described the workplace as one where she felt scared to speak up and women were not taken seriously. She often worked for the team for more than 20 hours a week during the season, on top of her full-time job.

“They knew we would say yes to anything they asked us to do, because it’s my favorite football team,” Reeder said.

‘Fighting for my place’

Adams saw herself working the rest of her career in the sports industry.

She was able to bring her family to games, travel for recruiting and realize her career goals.

But the pressure increased after she moved to Las Vegas with the company. Complaints made to HR were not investigated properly, according to Adams. The companywide trust of the department dwindled, leading to fewer people speaking up, she added.

Things took a turn in August 2020, when Adams asked her supervisor why a male attorney was being offered a salary about $50,000 higher than his female counterpart.

She said she then felt targeted because she was the only person in HR being asked to justify her overtime. She was also the only one to have her relocation package questioned despite employees in other departments receiving the same benefit.

“I was the only person they investigated, and I just happened to be the Black person they investigated,” she said.

Adams said she called Ventrelle, who was then the Raiders’ general counsel and in charge of the human resources department, to seek advice. While recounting how she was being treated, she claimed he interrupted and berated her for questioning the pay difference between two lawyers.

Ventrelle said he was offended that she would question his integrity, she recalled.

“I felt intimidated,” Adams said. “I felt like he was the person who had allowed them to treat me this way at that moment.”

In the months that followed, Adams said she was repeatedly disciplined for performing job functions that she had been doing for years or had been directed to do by her superiors.

In November 2020, she reached out to Ventrelle one last time to file a formal complaint, in hopes that there would be an investigation. She was terminated two weeks later.

“Until the very, very end, I was still fighting for my position,” she said. “I was still fighting for my place there.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter. Contact Mick Akers at makers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2920. Follow @mickakers on Twitter. Staff writers Jeff German, Ed Graney and Sam Gordon contributed to this report.

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