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Jason Wright On Leading The Washington Football Team Amid Multiple Crises

Aug 28, 2020

Jason Wright joins the Washington Football Team as it confronts a series of crises: allegations of sexual harassment and bullying, the COVID-19 pandemic and changing a racist team name.

Wright is the first Black person to ever be an NFL team president. He arrives after seven years as a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and before that, seven years as an NFL player, with an MBA degree in between.

Wright is in his first week on the job after being appointed on Aug. 17.

"It's been busy, I'll tell you that much," he tells NPR's All Things Considered.

Wright is responsible for the team's business operations. Team Coach Ron Rivera remains in charge of "on-field responsibilities and football decisions."

Both Wright and Rivera report to team owner Dan Snyder. Both have spoken about the need to change the team's culture, but they face the challenge of working under a team owner who according to findings from the Washington Post, "has presided over an organization in which women say they have been marginalized, discriminated against and exploited."

Wright talked with NPR about the decision to play football amid the pandemic and his ability to make change under Snyder's ownership.


Interview Highlights

How do you begin to prioritize your to do list? What's at the top of it right now?

The biggest thing on my mind right now — and always was, but has become more acute this week — is ensuring that our workforce feels confident that we are the leaders of people that can actually get our culture into a place where people feel trustworthy of leadership, that they feel trusted to do their work, that they can bring their full selves to work, that they are not going to be marginalized in any way.

... But they need to know in a clear way that there's a new direction, the things that we plan to do in tactical terms. And the best I can do is just talk to people to share that consistent message over and over again. And so the No. 1 priority is the psychological and emotional well-being of our team.

And does the team include the cheerleaders who are at the center of the stories about sexual harassment? How are you defining team?

Yeah, they are very much in, and when I say team I'm actually talking about all our business folks.

When you have these accusations in The Washington Post that point to the team owner, Dan Snyder, as deeply involved in sexual harassment, this is somebody who you answer to. How much can you really do to change the culture?

I think this is a question that most chief executives face. The corollary I give is, you know, I'm the chief executive and [the owners are] the board of directors. And so, yes, you answer to them and they're going to set direction.

But I have the ability to implement that in a way that's in line with my vision for the organization. Now, that said, if everything in the Washington Post article is true, then there's — that's just not a tenable situation, and Dan and Tanya [Snyder] and I have had open conversations about that. ...

And we will let the investigations play out and we'll have our true fact base on where we stand. And then if we have to revisit the conversation at that point, we will. But in the meantime, I have the leeway to set a new direction. And them, as the board of directors, have given me and Coach Rivera that trade space.

Why do you think it's taken until 2020 for a Black person to be the president of an NFL team, especially when about 70% of NFL players are Black?

Well, I mean, you could ask that question about CEOs in corporate America. I mean, take your pick, right? The systemic barriers to Black folks moving into higher education, therefore having the credentials that signal you're able to move into these roles and then the historic bias, both implicit and explicit, that exists in keeping Black folks from getting senior roles in organizations. They're well-documented.

We haven't had a lot of clear pathways or even a lot of thinking about folks transitioning from the field to the business side of the operations. And I credit the fact that I had a Black head coach during my time, a Black general manager during my time, and at a subconscious level, helping me believe at some level that there was a pathway for me in that direction, though it was never an explicit goal. I've got to believe that I was bold enough to step into the opportunity because I saw those role models before.

Let's talk about the NFL's return to play. The team announced earlier this year that it would play home games without fans present because of the risks of COVID-19. If the team believes it's a risk for fans to attend games, why isn't it a risk for players to play them?

Well, there's a difference between the testing protocols that players go through and what happens with fans.

I actually think the approach taken, which was what European soccer has done and what we are planning to do, is one that actually gave athletes the right autonomy to make a decision.

You could opt out. You can choose to play. They had input on what the proper protocols were. And as an athlete, at the end of the day, what I would have wanted and I think what many of these guys made a decision was, I want to play this game. The compensation is sufficient. And I've made that grown-up risk-reward calculation in my mind and I'm in for it.

I think what we owe to the players at any given time is a clear plan, a clear view of the risk.

Casey Morell and Patrick Jarenwattananon produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's just a sampling of the issues that were on Jason Wright's desk when he began his job this week as the new president of Washington's NFL team.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Washington franchise in the NFL is now going to have a new nickname and logo.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Former female employees of the Washington NFL franchise claiming they were sexually harassed during their time there. The culture...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: We enter into this sports season without any planning. Like, I think a lot of people hoped that the pandemic would be over by now.

SHAPIRO: And all that, plus Jason Wright is making history as the first Black person ever to be an NFL team president. He's just the fourth former NFL player to hold such a title. Jason Wright, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and thank you for making time for us in this very busy first week you've been having.

JASON WRIGHT: It's my pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: Well, any one of the issues that we just listed could occupy a team president full time - COVID-19, the team name change, sexual harassment allegations against your boss, team owner Dan Snyder, athletes and other leagues refusing to play to show solidarity with racial justice protesters. And this is your first week on the job, so how's it going?

WRIGHT: Well, it's been busy. I'll tell you that much. I haven't - I thought I was going to catch up on sleep leaving professional services. It has not happened this week. I think overall I am really enjoying being in this role not because it's easy or because it's been a slow ramp up, but because our organization and many like ours are at the center of the things that matter most right now in society - the various discussions and dialogues that are changing our collective psyche, the ways in which all organizations need to adapt and evolve to support women in the right ways, and how we actually think about operating in what is rapidly becoming a new normal for all business operations and is particularly acute for us in sports in the context of COVID-19. For me, I'm in the middle of the arena, and I'm happy about that.

SHAPIRO: How do you begin to prioritize your to-do list? I mean, like, what's at the top of it right now?

WRIGHT: The biggest thing on my mind right now - and always was but it's become more acute this week - is ensuring that our workforce feels confident that we are the leaders of people that can actually get our culture into a place where people feel trustworthy of leadership, that they feel trusted to do their work, that they can bring their full selves to work, that they are not going to be marginalized in any way. But they need to know in a clear way that there's a new direction, the things that we plan to do in tactical terms. And the best I can do is just talk to people to share that consistent message over and over again. And so the number one priority is the psychological and emotional well-being of our team.

SHAPIRO: And does the team include, like, the cheerleaders who are at the center of the stories about sexual harassment? I mean, how are you defining team?

WRIGHT: Yeah. They are very much - and when I say team, I'm actually talking about all our business folks.

SHAPIRO: When you have these accusations in The Washington Post that point to the team owner Dan Snyder as deeply involved in sexual harassment, this is somebody who you answer to. How much can you really do to change the culture?

WRIGHT: Yeah. So I think, you know, this is a question that most chief executives face. You know, the corollary I give is, you know, I'm the chief executive, and this is the board of directors. And so yes, you answer to them, and they're going to set direction. But I have the ability to implement that in a way that's in line with my vision for the organization. Now, that said, if everything in The Washington Post article is true, then there's - that's just not a tenable situation, you know? And Dan and Tanya and I have had open conversations about that.

SHAPIRO: This is Tanya Snyder, Dan's wife.

WRIGHT: Yes, sir. That's right. And, you know, we will let the investigations play out, and we'll have our true fact base on where we stand. And then if we have to revisit the conversation at that point, we will. But in the meantime, you know, I have the leeway to set a new direction. And, you know, them as the board of directors have given me and Coach Rivera that trade space.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think it's taken until 2020 for a Black person to be the president of an NFL team, especially when about 70% of NFL players are Black?

WRIGHT: Well, I mean, you could ask that question about CEOs in corporate America. I mean, take your pick - right? The systemic barriers to Black folks moving into higher education therefore having the credentials that signal you're able to move into these roles and then the historic bias both implicit and explicit that exists in keeping black folks from getting senior roles in organizations - they're well documented. We haven't had a lot of clear pathways or even a lot of thinking about folks transitioning from the field to the business side of the operations, you know?

And I credit the fact that I had a Black head coach during my time, a Black general manager during my time. I've had a subconscious level helping me believe at some level that there was a pathway for me in that direction. Though, it was never an explicit goal. I've got to believe that I was bold enough to step into the opportunity because I saw those role models before.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the NFL's return to play. The team announced earlier this year that it would play home games without fans present because of the risks of COVID-19. If the team believes it's a risk for fans to attend games, why isn't it a risk for players to play them?

WRIGHT: Well, there's a difference between the testing protocols that players go through and what happens with fans. I actually think the approach taken, which was what European soccer has done and what we are planning to do, is one that actually gave athletes the right autonomy to make a decision - right? You could opt out. You can choose to play. They had input on what the proper protocols were.

And as an athlete, at the end of the day, what I would have wanted and I think what many of these guys made a decision was, I want to play this game, the compensation is sufficient, and I've made that grown-up risk-reward calculation in my mind, and I'm in for it. I think what we owe to the players at any given time is a clear plan, a clear view of the risk.

SHAPIRO: OK. So when you were offered this job, was there any part of you that looked at the pandemic, the name change, the sexual harassment allegations and everything else, and did any part of you think this is just too much? No one human being could handle this many crises all at once.

WRIGHT: If I think about the crises, what I would consider a crises, the sexual harassment allegations is the one that falls into that category for me. And that's the only one that I looked at as, hey, this is something that will be intense, unique, highly emotional. Maybe it's a bit exhausting day to day. But the others are opportunities for me that felt quite familiar. You know, every single business that I'd been advising for the last few months as a professional services consultant - it was all about navigating and doing business in the context of COVID.

The opportunity to have a new identity as a club, for me, is a marvelous opportunity, not a crisis by any means. We have a deeply passionate and engaged fan base, and some of that passion is not as positive as it used to be. But for me, it is an opportunity to establish an identity that's representative of the fan base that captures the real heart behind the culture change that we want to implement. And that's a once-in-a-generation type of thing. You know, that name, unless we - unless everybody thinks it is the worst thing ever created, it will last a long time. And I don't know. As a leader, those are the types of decisions I want to be in on.

SHAPIRO: OK. I know the naming process is going to be long and include many stakeholders, but between you and me, what's your favorite?

WRIGHT: (Laughter) I - you know what? I know better now than to say anything.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WRIGHT: Oh, my goodness. It would be some smoke in the city...

SHAPIRO: Well, if you want to break some news, we're here for you - OK?

WRIGHT: ...If I tip my hand. Yes, I am sure you are.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Jason Wright is the newly appointed president of the Washington Football Team. Thank you for talking with us.

WRIGHT: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.