The Disarray and ‘Stone Age’ Dysfunction of the Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders have been rocked by a mass exodus of front office leaders amid dire management blunders like overpaying taxes and underpaying certain employees for years.
The latest upheaval came last week with the ouster of the team’s interim team president. That executive, Dan Ventrelle, responded by accusing the owner, Mark Davis, whose family has run the team for more than 50 years, of creating a hostile work environment, without giving specifics.
It was one of many examples of a workplace racked by years of dysfunction, and the latest sign of an N.F.L. franchise with troubled inner workings. Since the Raiders moved to Las Vegas from Oakland, Calif., in 2020, with high hopes in a growing market, six of the team’s eight top executives have quit or been fired with little explanation, either publicly or internally.
In interviews with The New York Times, more than a dozen former employees, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they signed agreements with the team prohibiting them from discussing their employment publicly, described numerous problems large and small. There were, they said, lax controls over how money was spent and how people were paid and even the bungling of the payment of its taxes over several years. Not long after its move, the team missed a payment for the electric bill in its temporary office, forcing the lights to be shut off.
Nobody has asserted the financial disorder amounts to any crimes, but erroneous information on company ledgers can generally lead to problems with creditors, regulators, the league and others.
Employees who raised concerns over the team’s operations were often ignored or pushed out and given settlements and nondisclosure agreements to keep them quiet.
“If anyone complained, they were let go,” said Nicole Adams, who worked in the human resources department for almost five years. She was pushed out in late 2020 and declined to sign a severance agreement that she said would have prevented her from speaking about her tenure at the team. She said that Ventrelle, then the team’s general counsel, “joked he would be ready to settle if anyone came forward with a charge.”
Ventrelle did not answer requests for comment, but he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal shortly after he left that he had been making an effort to clean things up and had informed league officials of written complaints from employees of alleged misconduct.
The Raiders did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The N.F.L. declined to comment on Friday. After Ventrelle’s claims last week about a hostile work environment on the team, an N.F.L. spokesman, Brian McCarthy, said the league would look into the matter.
“We recently became aware of these allegations and take them very seriously,” McCarthy said.
The decimation of the front office staff is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Raiders. In October, Coach Jon Gruden resigned after The Times detailed emails in which he had made homophobic and misogynistic remarks before he was in his second stint with the team. Two players from his tenure have been accused of felony crimes.
The team’s troubles come at a time when the N.F.L., more popular than ever with fans, grapples with serious questions around the way the league and some teams are run. The league has been stung by a scandal at the Washington Commanders, where dozens of female employees accused team owner Daniel Snyder and top executives of harassment. The team last year was fined $10 million and has replaced many executives and rebranded itself. A congressional committee and attorneys general in Virginia and the District of Columbia are investigating some of the accusations, including mismanagement of the team’s finances.
Women who worked at N.F.L. headquarters have also complained about an office culture that marginalized them, allegations that prompted attorneys general from New York and five other states to threaten to investigate the N.F.L. if conditions did not improve.
A Lucrative Move
After years languishing in a crumbling stadium in Oakland, the Raiders sought to reinvent themselves in Las Vegas, where they play in a new, heavily subsidized $2 billion stadium that will host the 2024 Super Bowl, the league’s premier event. In 2021, the Raiders’ second season at Allegiant Stadium, the team finished 10-7 and lost in the first round of the N.F.L. playoffs. The value of the team has swelled to more than $3 billion helped by the prospect of adding more fans in the fast-growing Las Vegas area.
While many other N.F.L. teams are owned by billionaires who amassed their wealth in other industries, the Raiders are a family business. The franchise is largely the creation of Al Davis, who was the team’s coach and general manager before seizing ownership control in 1972. The team was Davis’s principal business until he died in 2011.
Mark Davis, the son of Al Davis, is now the team’s principal owner. In the years before he took the bold step of moving the team to Las Vegas, he was mostly hands-off and left the day-to-day running of the club to trusted lieutenants. They included Marc Badain, the longtime president who had been close to the Davis family for decades.
Several former employees who spoke to The Times said that Davis was rarely seen around the office. There was little oversight of expenses, employees said, and money was often disbursed without a clear accounting of where it was going.
By some accounts, Davis began to take a closer look at the inner workings of his team last year. Two former employees said a management consulting firm was brought in to assess the organizational structure. And while it is not known precisely what Davis found, several top executives — Badain; Ed Villanueva, the chief financial officer; and Araxie Grant, the team’s controller — were soon gone.
Three months later, Davis gave an explanation.
“I think it’s pretty much clear now, or I don’t know if it is clear now, but it was pretty much accounting irregularities,” including the overpayment of taxes, Davis told reporters at a league meeting in New York. “That’s why the C.F.O. left, the controller left and the president left, that’s what it was.”
Badain and Villanueva have not spoken publicly, and did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But Grant denied Davis’s claims, releasing a statement that said, in part, “I can say that I have never been involved in any financial impropriety or wrongdoing before or during my 20-month tenure with the Raiders.”
That irregularities could occur did not surprise veteran employees, who said the team, with roots going back to 1960, had yet to modernize much of its operations.
“The Raiders kind of operate back in the Stone Age,” Adams said. Another former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of career repercussions, said “everything was still very much paper, files, boxes, warehouses.”
What happened in the top offices inevitably affected the employees below. Workers were systematically underpaid, prompting lawsuits that have resulted in the Raiders paying more than $1 million in settlements. In 2017, the Raiders settled a lawsuit with dozens of former cheerleaders who accused the team of paying them less than the minimum wage during the 2010 to 2013 seasons. The team paid $1.25 million to the women to pay them the equivalent of minimum wage, and to cover their out-of-pocket expenses.
Cheerleaders were not the only employees treated poorly. Adams, who started in the human resources department in 2016, said she was told to create job descriptions that would make it impossible for employees to file for overtime even though workers could log 12 or more hours during game days, training camp and other busy periods.
Adams said that she told her boss that skirting overtime was illegal. Her boss agreed, but said that Ventrelle wanted it done.
Adams, who is Black, filed a complaint against the Raiders with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission. In the complaint, which was reviewed by The Times, she accused the team of discriminating against her because of her race and retaliating against her after she raised concerns about pay disparities and unequal treatment.
Separately, in 2020, Nicolle Reeder, a former Raiders employee, sued the team on behalf of herself and other game-day employees, accusing the team of violating labor laws by denying them required rest and meal breaks and not paying wages on time. The suit was settled last year for $325,000, a fraction of which was distributed among more than 400 affected employees.
Bradley Kaplan, who worked as a scout for 12 years, sued the Raiders in 2019 because, he said in a lawsuit, he was demoted after telling the team he and his wife were expecting a child during the football season. He said that after he expressed concerns about balancing his football and family responsibilities, and after he requested family leave, he was fired. The team successfully moved these claims to arbitration, where they were resolved behind closed doors.
Kaplan also claimed in his lawsuit that the Raiders required some football operations personnel to sign unlawful confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements, which he said prevented employees from discussing matters related to their employment or raising concerns about working conditions. The Raiders denied these claims, but agreed to a $25,000 settlement in 2021 covering the 65 past or present employees who signed contracts with such confidentiality provisions between July 2018 and September 2021.
Lawsuits against the team alleging poor working conditions continue to be filed. Matthew Proscia, who worked for The Raider Image, the team’s apparel stores, filed a class-action lawsuit last month accusing the team of overtime pay violations and a “company-wide policy and practice of refusing to pay full daily overtime wages to Nevada employees who worked over eight hours in a workday.”
The Raiders have yet to respond to Proscia’s complaint.
An Attempt to Rally
Ventrelle, who had been the team’s general counsel, was named interim president after Badain suddenly left in July. A wave of high-level employee departures followed. Tom Blanda, who was in charge of building the stadium; Mark Shearer, the chief revenue officer; and Brandon Doll, the vice president in charge of business strategy, all left the team.
The departed executives collectively had put in more than 100 years of work for the Raiders, with most of their tenures stretching back to when Al Davis was still alive.
“Current people tell me the culture is worse than they’ve seen it,” Adams said.
Days after Badain’s departure, business-side employees were gathered into a team meeting room. For the next hour or so, Gruden, still the coach at the time, gave what was intended to be a rousing speech about teamwork, peppering his message with football metaphors as he paced around the room and asked the employees to get behind their new boss, Ventrelle, according to two former employees who were present.
But over the next year, that “team” would continue to unravel. Gruden was gone just three months after his speech, and in the immediate aftermath, employees were given spontaneous bonuses, either $5,000 or a percentage of their salary, depending on their rank with the team. One former employee who received this bonus felt it was an effort by Davis to boost morale — but there was more upheaval to come.
Jaime Stratton, who ran human resources for two years, left in April. Employees were informed of her departure in an email that said only that she was “no longer” with the team. Jeremy Aguero, the team’s chief operations and analytics officer, resigned in May after just seven months.
Days later, it was Ventrelle’s turn to go. Davis’s public statement gave no reason for his firing. Ventrelle insisted to The Review-Journal that he had tried to address the team’s problems with Davis, to no avail.
“When Mark was confronted about these issues he was dismissive and did not demonstrate the warranted level of concern,” Ventrelle said.
Amid the turmoil, some of the team’s top leadership roles have remained vacant.
At least one top executive has Davis’s ear, according to former colleagues. Marcel Reece, who was a running back with the Raiders for seven seasons, was hired by the Raiders in late 2020 after retiring from playing in 2017 and spending time with the NFL Network as a football analyst.
Now, after less than two years in the Raiders’ front office, he is listed second on the club’s organizational chart — right under Davis — following a recent promotion from senior adviser to chief people officer.