The historic hiring of Jason Wright, the NFL’s first Black team president
The Washington Football Team’s groundbreaking move gives hope for future
NFL pioneer Rod Graves awoke Monday morning to news he had awaited for decades, yet often doubted would come: the league finally has its first Black team president after the Washington Football Team announced the groundbreaking hiring of prominent management consulting executive Jason Wright. And while Graves, who leads the independent group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion, was elated that another long-standing barrier had finally been toppled, he wasn’t surprised by who kicked down the door.
In fact, Graves, during his tenure as general manager of the Arizona Cardinals, once envisioned Wright, who played running back for the team, would eventually make his biggest mark off the field.
“Some people, you can see great things in them, and you could just see it in him,” Graves, the top decision-maker of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said on the phone. “He was the kind of guy, even back then, who people would just look at and say, ‘This guy is going to be leading somebody’s corporation someday.’ ”
As both the nation and the NFL continue to grapple with the legacy of systemic racism – an undertaking largely initiated because of the harrowing videotaped killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in late May – Wright, 38, assumes control of Washington’s entire business operation, rising to a position of power that few Black men, or people of color in general, have historically occupied in any corporate structure.
Wright was humbled by the significance of the moment.
“It’s important to sit and reflect on the magnitude of this, because anytime a person of color is the first of anything, it’s significant and it’s meaningful,” Wright said on the phone. “It’s not so much because it’s about me, but it’s about all the folks that attempted before and paved the way for this to be something that I was able to walk into.”
Wright is both well-positioned and well-suited to succeed as a trailblazer, many NFL executives and longtime league observers told The Undefeated, because he’s uniquely qualified to lead in these unprecedented times.
During his seven-year playing career, the former Northwestern University standout served as a team representative for the NFL Players Association. He then went on to earn an MBA from the University of Chicago. As a partner in the domestic operations practice of McKinsey & Company, a global strategy and management consulting firm based in Washington, Wright authored important work on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, among other topics on matters of race. Under commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL is taking the most significant steps in its history in hopes of producing positive change on that front.
The NFL will begin the 2020 season with only four Black or Latino head coaches and two Black general managers. In the past three hiring cycles, there have been 20 head coach openings, but only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle. Goodell was so concerned about the numbers, he recently backed a controversial proposal that would have tied improved draft position for teams that hire minority candidates as head coaches or general managers. (The proposal was shelved.)
In 2019, Kevin Warren, formerly the NFL’s highest-ranking African American in business operations while serving as the chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, left the league to become commissioner of the Big Ten. Some within the league viewed Warren as the most likely candidate to eventually ascend to a team presidency position. Privately, though, Wright was high on lists as well.
Recently, the league office aggressively pursued Wright to fill a high-ranking position that would have given him major input in charting the league’s diversity strategy, according to multiple NFL sources. According to one executive, “he was Roger’s No. 1 pick” for that job. Although Wright decided to stay put at McKinsey & Company, his stature among powerful league influencers only increased.
“There’s only one right word to use here: historic,” said N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University and author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. “For years, the lack of a team president has been the conspicuous absence. To finally have an African American as a president of an NFL franchise … it’s fantastic.”
It’s important to note that Wright joins Washington at a time of unprecedented turmoil for the long-embattled franchise.
The club is coping with the fallout from a stunning report in The Washington Post in July in which 15 women who previously worked for Washington’s franchise allege sexual harassment by then-Washington staffers. The NFL is investigating whether Washington adhered to the latest iteration of the Rooney Rule in its hiring of two high-ranking executives in July. After vowing for years to never change the club’s former name, which many league observers decried as being racist, owner Daniel Snyder recently bowed to pressure from the team’s corporate sponsors. (The renaming process is not complete.) And Washington’s minority owners have reportedly pressured Snyder to sell the team.
Immediately, Wright will face a heavy lift as he attempts to rebuild the once-iconic brand.
“Jason is one of the most thoughtful, sincere and sharpest people I know,” George Atallah, the union’s executive director of external affairs, wrote in a text message to The Undefeated. “I am sure he is going into this fully aware of the obstacles he needs to overcome and the challenges ahead. That is an important reason for why he is qualified for the role.”
“If he’s given the opportunity to put in his plan, he can do it,” added one longtime league official, who knows Wright well but requested anonymity to speak freely about the franchise’s troubles. “If he can accomplish what he has dedicated his career to, real change will come.”
This much is certain: Wright will have the full backing of the league office.
Given the historic nature of the move, and everything occurring with Washington off the field, Goodell and his top lieutenants were well aware of every development in Washington’s process with Wright, sources familiar with the situation said. Because of the potential impact the move could have in hiring across the league, Goodell would only want a rock star in the gig – and one who would be given the support needed to succeed. As big as the move is for Washington, it’s much bigger for the NFL as a whole.
“Jason Wright’s hiring is not only long overdue, it is the result of long-term and tireless efforts to achieve an open, equal and fair process where coaches, front office and C-suite talent of color have equitable opportunity to compete,” Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, stated in a text message. “The Washington Football Team’s example is commendable and should serve as a standard for the future.”
Give Snyder credit where credit is due, the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s Graves said.
“Dan made the right choice. He hired an excellent, qualified candidate,” Graves said. “He made the type of choice that represents the type of decision we hope more teams will make.”
The NFL, which officially turns 100 on Thursday, finally has a Black team president, with Jason Wright being its first. He’ll help determine how many will follow.