On July 21, her first day of work at the job she calls “better than my dream job,” Julie Donaldson braced herself, donning invisible armor for what she wasn’t sure.
The day before she had finalized a contract with the Washington Football Team to become senior vice president of media, host all the team’s television shows and become the first woman to have a full-time role in an NFL team’s game-day radio booth. The position instantly made her the organization’s highest-ranking female employee, despite the fact she had never hired or fired anyone or held a management position before.
She was replacing Larry Michael, the team’s longtime radio voice who had also run broadcast operations and was one of the organization’s most recognizable faces. The team had just stripped itself of its longtime “Redskins” name, and five days before, The Washington Post had published a story in which 15 female former employees and two sportswriters accused several past executives of sexual harassment. One of those executives was Michael, who abruptly retired before the report published.
She was a 42-year-old woman whose career had been spent on air at regional sports television networks, walking into a powerful job with a team that had been exposed for a culture hostile to women. What would everyone think? Would she be welcomed? Would people resent that she was there?
Then came the women who work for the team. One-by-one they appeared at her office door or called on her phone.
“We need this,” Donaldson remembers one saying.
“We’re so glad you are here,” another told her.
Suddenly, Donaldson knew she had made the right decision to leave her previous job at NBC Sports Washington to step into an enormous unknown.
“I believe I can make a difference,” she says.
She did not come to Washington’s football team to be invisible. By description, her role will make her the face fans see when they click on the website or tune into the team’s daily television program. Her voice will be impossible to miss on the radio broadcast. Next to Coach Ron Rivera, she might be the organization’s most visible non-player.
But Donaldson sees her job as more than being a face on TV or an executive in an office. The harassment story hit the team hard, several people who work there have said. It left many angry. Already, Rivera had been trying to instill a new culture of inclusion to replace one that many have described as toxic. Donaldson notices others attempting this, too. She believes the organization is trying to remake itself. She has her own story, too, a painful one, and she wants to be a part of the team’s fresh start.
“I did my homework before taking this job,” she says.
When Washington first contacted Donaldson just hours after Michael retired, she was wary. She knew a significant story about harassment was about to break. As a reporter, she had covered the barren last years of former team president Bruce Allen’s reign. She understood the team’s problems and wasn’t sure she wanted to make them her problems, too.
“I didn’t need this job,” she says. “I liked what I was doing and doing it where it was.”
She woke the next morning certain she would say no. She had worked too hard to build her name as a journalist. She didn’t want to ruin it working for a team reeling from scandal.
But then she talked to Marcus Stephenson, the franchise’s head of digital marketing and programming, who had been hired this past November. On the call, Stephenson talked about wanting to reimagine the radio broadcasts and change the way the team did its shows. He described a new, young group of leaders on the franchise’s business side who weren’t a part of the past. He told her that she would fit in, that she could help make something fresh and different on the radio broadcast and on the team’s website.
“We’re doing something cool here,” he said.
By the time Donaldson hung up, she was interested but remained unsure. She called others in the headquarters. Some she knew; some she didn’t. “No one is off-limits,” the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer Terry Bateman told her. Every question would be answered.
“I don’t want to join an organization I’m not proud of,” she said to owner Daniel Snyder’s wife, Tanya, with whom she had worked on charity projects.
“We’re working on changing that,” Tanya Snyder replied.
Slowly, Donaldson began to feel better about the job. She called more people, including friends and parents and the mentors whose words had always been the most honest in the past. She called people she knew who hated the team and couldn’t stand Snyder. Donaldson says almost everyone said the same things: The new executives were smart. The team wanted to move away from the past. She could be a part of the change. Finally, she knew. She had to take the job.
Donaldson didn’t know most of the women who made sexual harassment claims against the team, but she ached for them as if she did. She read their stories and felt the anger and humiliation that pulsed from the words. She knew their hopelessness because once this had been her, too.
At first her career had seemed like a dream. Raised in a suburb of Jacksonville, Fla., she went to the University of Florida, was named Miss Florida USA and in the early 2000s was host of the Miami Heat’s TV show. She then moved to New York, where she was a reporter for the regional sports station SNY, the network’s youngest journalist and only woman. In early 2008 she took a job covering Boston’s pro sports teams for WHDH, the city’s NBC affiliate.
The move to Boston seemed good. She was going through a divorce and had started a relationship with someone she found caring, a man who played professional slamball — a combination of basketball with trampolines. But on June 27, 2008, that new boyfriend, Ivan Lattimore, turned violent, throwing her into the wall of her apartment and punching her in the face.
Lattimore eventually pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to a year in prison, but the Boston press devoured the story, and it became front page news. Lattimore talked freely to reporters, spinning lewd tales of their life together that Donaldson wanted to scream were all lies. Because of the pending trial, though, she couldn’t and was left to read, in agonizing silence, the salacious news accounts of WHDH’s “blonde bombshell” “beauty queen” whose relationship had gone bad.
“I was victimized as the victim,” she says.
It felt like her world was crumbling. She faced Lattimore in court, which took every bit of courage she had, then left the job in Boston and moved back home unsure whether she could go on. She was 30, and a career that months before had been soaring seemed as if it was done. “Someone needed to speak up for me when I couldn’t,” she says. One day her father walked into a room to find her sitting in front of a television with ESPN on the screen and tears rolling down her face. She felt lost.
“She was devastated by that experience,” says Carole Smith, a family friend and counselor whom Donaldson describes as “helping save my life.”
“Not only was she physically wounded, but she blamed herself for what happened,” Smith continues. “All of her hopes and dreams were shattered.”
For nearly two years, Donaldson and Smith talked. They leaned on their shared Christian faith and they prayed. Smith told Donaldson the attack wasn’t her fault. Slowly, Donaldson’s confidence came back. She knew she could go back to television. Then in 2010, an opportunity came at NBC Sports Washington. She was ready to begin again.
As she rebuilt her career, she started talking to domestic violence groups. She took part in a Take Back the Night Walk in Jacksonville. She estimates that she has told her story to hundreds of other women. So two days into her conversations with Bateman, when he first proposed the idea of the vice president role, she asked whether the title would give her authority to be a voice for the women who worked for the team. She told him she wanted the power to challenge harassment inside the organization and to be someone women could approach if they had problems.
Even after Bateman said yes, Donaldson called Nancy Hubacher, the team’s vice president of sales and marketing and a friend since she had come to Washington. Donaldson had to be sure. She had come too far from those weeks in Boston to be given a ceremonial title and little chance to have an impact. “If they say you will be given full support, then you will be given full support,” Hubacher told her.
“Somebody needed to speak up for me when I couldn’t speak up,” Donaldson says, referring to her time in Boston. “No one should ever have to feel alone like that. If I can say to someone here, ‘I know what it’s like; let’s talk about this,’ I know I can make a difference.
“I don’t want the voice to be taken away from women at all,” she continues. “I’m going to fight for it. I’m going to fight for the women who had a bad experience. …”
She pauses for a moment.
“You know, this is supposed to be fun,” she says. “We work in sports. To have to carry the burden of what someone did to you is unacceptable.”
There is a perception that Donaldson knows people must have. It’s a belief that the Washington Football Team, reeling from the sexual harassment allegations and desperate to replace Michael two weeks before players reported for training camp, reached for the first woman available; a public relations stunt to quell the blow of bad press.
Everyone around the team told her this is not the case.
“We had an opening and wanted to hire the best person possible,” Bateman says. “The fact she is a woman was not a driver.”
Donaldson’s job is immense enough. Stephenson sees a radio booth where she will be a host alongside the play-by-play announcer and analyst that Donaldson will hire. He imagines her pulling things from culture and social media on a broadcast that will be “interactive” and he hopes will bring in new audiences. She must get those hires right while at the same time making the impact she wants in the front office.
“These are important, important goals she has stated that she wants to achieve,” says Amy Trask, the CBS analyst who was the first woman to run an NFL team as CEO of the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders.
The key, says Trask — who doesn’t know Donaldson — is whether the team gives Donaldson the means to achieve those goals. “It’s one thing [for an organization] to state those changes.”
It may be a while before the extent of those changes are known; in the wake of The Post report, the team commissioned an independent review into its workplace culture from D.C. attorney Beth Wilkinson, who will investigate the franchise, write a report and make recommendations.
So far, after less than a week in which Donaldson has slept little and spent her days piling through the flood of audition tapes from prospective play-by-play announcers, interviewing coaches and players for the team’s site and helping to present the organization’s new, temporary name, she believes everything she was told in the days before taking the job. She feels that everyone in the building wants this to be a fresh start, to end the gloom that has hovered over the franchise.
One of her favorite memories of the interview process was a meeting she had with Rivera, who, after hearing her story, said, “What this tells me about you is you’re a fighter.”
She has repeated those words often in the days since, believing them to be another reason she wanted to take the Washington job. They come to mind one evening while she drives home after another 10-hour day at the team headquarters. Her schedule is full. She still hasn’t met all of her co-workers. All she can picture are the tasks piled on her desk back in the building where she hopes her new job will allow her to be the voice she once needed but never got. It’s a lot. She sighs.
“I have to get this job right,” she says, and drives onward into the night.