Washington hires former player as NFL’s first black team president
By Ken Belson
Jason Wright, a former NFL running back turned business consultant, has been named the new president of the Washington Football Team, the team announced earlier this week. He is the first African American to hold such a position in league history.
At 38, Wright, who played seven seasons in the NFL and has worked for the past seven years at McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm, is also the youngest team president in the league. As a consultant, he has helped reshape government agencies, industrial companies and institutions of higher learning.
Wright has no experience working at an NFL team, though he was his team’s union representative for two years heading into the lockout in 2011. While responsibilities can vary from team to team, club presidents typically oversee all business operations and sometimes look after the football side of the franchise, and report directly to the owner. Wright will be in charge of the team’s operations, finance, sales and marketing divisions, among others.
“This organization is going through wholesale transformation on multiple fronts,” Wright said Monday in a phone interview. “This is going to be a very challenging but exciting time.”
The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which has pressed the league for years to increase the diversity of its executives and coaches, said it hoped Wright’s hiring was the start of a trend.
“We hope that it signifies a true change for the manner in which leadership is chosen in the NFL,” Rod Graves, executive director of the alliance, said in a statement.
Wright will be joining Washington at a particularly fraught juncture, becoming the latest new hire by the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, who is in the process of overhauling his foundering franchise. Wright replaces Bruce Allen, the longtime club president who was fired at the end of last season.
After resisting pressure for more than two decades, Snyder last month abandoned the team’s longtime name, the Redskins. The club is in the process of selecting a new name and logo.
The team also this summer removed references to its founding owner, George Preston Marshall, who named the team in the 1930s and was the last owner in the NFL to integrate his roster.
Snyder hired Ron Rivera, one of only four head coaches of color in the league, in late December. He has also brought in new front office personnel and broadcasters. He fired several top employees just before and after The Washington Post published an investigation that included accusations by 15 women of rampant sexual harassment by male co-workers in the team’s front office. Snyder hired a high-powered law firm to review the women’s claims.
Wright, who as a consultant helped companies transform their corporate cultures, said he hoped to use the findings as a springboard to change the team’s internal operations.
“There’s no time to waste on the culture side of it,” he said, so that the team has “a work environment that attracts the best people in sports.”
Three of the team’s minority shareholders, who together own about 40 percent of the club, have also been trying to sell their stakes. Snyder has suggested in legal filings that one of those shareholders, Dwight Schar, may be involved in a scheme to defame him.
Wright will have to lean on his business acumen to navigate the turmoil. Before joining McKinsey, he earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. After finishing high school in Diamond Bar, Calif., about 30 miles outside Los Angeles, Wright attended Northwestern, where he majored in psychology. He played wide receiver before switching to running back. In his four college seasons, he rushed for 2,625 yards, seventh most in team history.
Wright was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2004 by the San Francisco 49ers but was cut before the end of the preseason. He spent most of the season on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad before joining the active roster and appearing in two games at the end of the year.
He spent the next four seasons with the Cleveland Browns. His best season was in 2007, when he rushed for 277 yards and a touchdown and caught 24 passes for 233 yards. In 2009, he signed a two-year, $2 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
In July 2011, during a four-month lockout by the NFL owners, Wright retired from the league to attend business school.
Wright acknowledged he “was not the greatest player in the world” but that as a lesser known player, he had time to talk to team business personnel and learn about marketing, public relations, finance and other aspects of club operations.
Wright said his relative youth will be an asset as team president because he has connections to young people in industry and can “bring a set of ideas that haven’t come up through the grapevine.”
He is also aware that he will be blazing a trail as the first Black team president.
“For any people of color, when you’re the first of anything, it’s meaningful,” he said.
The NFL has been repeatedly criticized for the lack of diversity in its management ranks. While about 70 percent of the players are Black, there are only two team owners of color. While the league has increased the diversity in its executive positions at its headquarters, the record of its teams has been spottier.
People of color make up less than 20 percent of senior administration positions at the league’s 32 clubs.
Last season, there were only two club presidents or chief executives who were people of color. Kim Pegula, co-owner of the Buffalo Bills with her husband, Terry Pegula, is also the club’s president. Paraag Marathe is president of 49ers Enterprises and executive vice president for football operations for the 49ers.
There are only two female team presidents: Pegula of the Bills and Darcie Glazer Kassewitz of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before leaving to run the Big Ten Conference, Kevin Warren, who was legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, functioned as a team president but did not have the title, according to Cyrus Mehri, who has worked with the Fritz Pollard Alliance to help establish the so-called Rooney Rule. The rule obligates teams to interview at least two candidates of color for top coaching and executive openings and requires at least one woman to be interviewed for openings at the league office.