But the allegations made in the story — including that the broadcast department created unauthorized videos using outtakes from the team’s annual cheerleader swimsuit calendar that featured partial nudity and that team owner Daniel Snyder had encouraged a cheerleader to join a friend of his in a hotel suite — stunned Wright. He had heard about some of the accusations but thought he would see them in the final report of an investigation of the team’s workplace culture being conducted by attorney Beth Wilkinson, not in a news story. Snyder has denied the allegations involving him.
As Wright, the NFL’s first Black team president, absorbed the allegations on the third morning of his new job, he worried for the employees he had met on a video conference the previous week, during which he promised to be open and honest and to change what many had described as a toxic atmosphere around the team.
“The story went like a shock wave across our workforce,” he says. “I mean, it hurt. It hurt every single person; there’s not a single person that didn’t feel it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an organization in that much collective pain.”
For the rest of that day and much of the next, he talked to anyone around the franchise who wanted to speak. Then, two days later, he called another staff meeting, asking Coach Ron Rivera to join. One by one, employees appeared in tiny squares on computer screens, speaking with emotions that Wright describes as “raw.”
When they were done, Wright talked about the investigation, which the NFL assumed control of this week. He talked about “finding facts” and the changes to come, such as the human resources department he is close to creating that will be capable of handling the type of harassment complaints that some former employees said went unheeded in the years before. He describes it as “a tough moment, but we are on the right path.”
“To me, it reinforced what I came here to do,” Wright says.
‘I do have a clear plan’
That Wright would run an NFL team at 38 surprises few who knew him for the seven seasons he played as a backup running back in the league. He was always the leader — so respected, in fact, that after he signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2009, the team made him a captain before he had even played a game.
“That is very rare,” says Rod Graves, the Cardinals’ general manager at the time who now heads the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization dedicated to getting more head coaches and top executives of color hired in the NFL.
When the news was announced Aug. 17, Mike McCartney, who was Wright’s agent as a player, opened a text message from a mutual friend, who wrote, “I always knew Jason would be the president in Washington someday, but I didn’t think it would be of the football team.”
Even though the move surprised many around the NFL, it made sense. After retiring at the end of the 2010 season, Wright got an MBA from the University of Chicago and spent seven years in the Washington office of consulting firm McKinsey & Co., helping revive struggling corporations and eventually becoming a partner. During a tumultuous summer for the Washington franchise — Snyder dropped the team’s 87-year-old name under pressure from sponsors and the public, tried to manage an attempt by his three co-owners to sell their roughly 40 percent stake in the franchise and responded to allegations of a culture of harassment detailed in two stories in The Post — no NFL team appeared more ready to be revived.
What could be better than hiring a former player who specializes in corporate turnarounds?
But the task is enormous. Wright’s ultimate success will be determined by how well he manages the calamities he inherited while trying to get a new stadium built to replace FedEx Field — something his predecessor, Bruce Allen, failed to do.
The problems seemed so large, Wright wasn’t sure he wanted the job of overseeing the franchise’s business operations when he was put in touch with Snyder and his wife, Tanya, a few weeks before his hire. The organization’s struggles over the past two decades are well known and having lived in Northern Virginia for the past seven years, Wright was familiar with most of its controversies. He had always believed in honesty, togetherness and openness — and everything most people had heard about the franchise under Snyder and Allen was something of the opposite.
Did he really want to leave a great corporate job for a team that had won just two playoff games and had nine head coaches in the past two decades?
Still, he met three times with the Snyders, the first two conversations taking place by Zoom and lasting for hours. After the second call, Wright went through the NFL’s multiday novel coronavirus testing protocol and sat down with them in person for another long discussion. He says it was clear from the start that he was interviewing to be the team president and that both Dan and Tanya Snyder were equal participants in the three sessions.
But the conversations surprised him. Rather than talking about business growth, as he had expected the Snyders would, they described an organization where employees felt valued and motivated and people believed they could reach untapped potential. He liked that they had hired Rivera to run the football side of the organization, admiring the coach’s desire to build a winning culture. The more he listened to the Snyders, the better he felt.
“They’re the ones who raised words like ‘inclusive,’ ‘transparent,’ ‘accountable,’ ” Wright says. “I didn’t raise them. They said those words first. They just resonated with me. They are things that I also believe in and think are core to a healthy organizational culture.”
Eventually he realized that, yes, he did want the job. He believed he could make a difference.
“I like complex challenges,” he said, with a chuckle, in an interview that took place before The Post story published. “I could use a little less complexity with this one in particular. But no, it’s … an exciting thing for sure. I do have a clear plan, and I think we have the right people to reduce the complexity in short order. Not all of it but a substantial chunk of it.”
‘It’s a very significant moment’
The NFL’s first Black team president doesn’t seem to particularly like talking about the distinction. In fact, he doesn’t even consider himself to be the first Black team president, suggesting that was the job new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren had as the Minnesota Vikings’ chief operating officer the previous four years, even if the word “president” wasn’t attached to Warren’s name.
But Wright’s hire is momentous in the summer of George Floyd, Jacob Blake and the racial reckoning that has swept across the country. The NFL itself has been struggling with a systemic inability to hire more coaches, general managers and top executives of color. Only three of its head coaches are Black, and Rivera was the only non-White coach hired this past offseason. Just two of the NFL’s general managers are Black.
Some have said the fact that Wright will be running an organization as prominent as Washington’s, helping to lead it through as chaotic of a time as any football franchise has faced in recent memory, brings added importance to his hire.
“It’s a very significant moment,” Graves says.
“Is being the first Black team president important? Absolutely,” says Michael Blake, one of Wright’s best friends and fraternity brothers from Northwestern who is now a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “Just don’t start with it being the first question. We should start with the premise of an incredibly gifted human being who has been chosen for this moment.”
Wright says he understands the importance of being the NFL’s first Black team president, but he seems uncomfortable with letting it define him. He also can’t help but notice the comments that surface about the qualifications of a 38-year-old Black man who has never worked in an NFL front office, picking up the subtle hints in questions that his hiring was a PR move by a desperate owner.
“Maybe you could question it around youth or experience — maybe,” he says. “But when a question about your qualifications comes right on the heels of the first Black fill-in-the-blank, that’s just something I think most Black professionals have experienced one too many times.
“But then again, you’re accustomed to it,” he continues. “You know it’s going to be in the background if or until people are more accustomed to seeing talent that, again, on a surface-level way looks different across organizations of all types.”
‘Talent is equally distributed’
In many ways, Wright was born into social activism. His great grandfather on his father’s side stood firm against angry White people who believed he had benefited too much in a land sale, eventually squelching an uprising. His father’s father was active in the NAACP in the 1950s, when many White people considered it a radical organization.
A relative on his mother’s side, Charles Gomillion, a professor at Alabama’s Tuskegee University, challenged attempts by White supremacists in the mid-1950s to disenfranchise Black voters in the town of Tuskegee. The battle led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, in which the court ruled that the move by White leaders violated the 15th Amendment.
Wright’s father, Sam, was an activist while in college in Dallas. But after moving to California, where he worked for Dow Chemical, Sam Wright began to focus on inclusion. He and his wife, Susan, were the first Black family to move onto their cul-de-sac in Upland, Calif., about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles. While their arrival first caused tension, they quickly grew close to their neighbors, many of whom continue to be good family friends.
Later, when the Wrights moved to nearby Diamond Bar and Sam had started an insurance business by going door-to-door and Susan was working as a flight attendant, working long flights across the Pacific, they were a family that kept reaching out to others. Sam and Susan were constantly taking in friends of their children or other people they knew who needed a place to stay, and they pushed their kids hard in school and sports.
When Jason was in high school, Sam started a multicultural club in an attempt to break the cliques that formed among students based on their race. At the time, Jason thought little of the lessons his parents were giving, but as he got older and met his wife, Tiffany, he found he was doing many of the same things himself. While in Cleveland early in his career, he and Tiffany became close to two teenage girls Tiffany was teaching at a program in East Cleveland. The two girls — now in their 20s and each with a child — eventually lived with them at times in recent years and are now like daughters to the couple, who have two younger children of their own.
These experiences shaped Wright, first in football and later as an executive at McKinsey, where one of his biggest influences was Vivian Hunt, a managing partner in the firm’s U.K. office who wrote a report pointing out statistics that showed the most diverse companies financially outperformed their peers.
“I fundamentally believe that talent is equally distributed among people of all types, across all races, genders, sexual orientation, fill in the blank, whatever it is,” Wright says. “Therefore, for me as a business leader, it’s not only imperative for cultural and values reasons, it’s a business imperative. Because if my team does not reflect that, it does not have the best talent [and] it means we are not going to get the best decisions or the best outcomes.”
‘We are about something different’
The other day, someone asked Graves whether he thought Wright was walking into the worst possible situation for the league’s first Black team president — whether Washington’s problems are so severe, he can only fail.
“I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Graves says, recalling the conversation. “Seldom as people of color do we come into a situation that is ever perfect. There are situations that define men, and there are situations that define us as leaders.”
Wright and Rivera, he said, are the right people to fix Washington’s broken football team.
“They need an opportunity to build a culture,” he adds.
During a video call from his new office this week, Wright sighs. His first two weeks were eventful, but in a way he seems happy the investigation has come early. Such problems excite him, he says, forcing him to seek solutions, and he believes he built a bond working with team employees in those somber hours Aug. 26.
“But that’s not to cast to the side the reality that, despite great talent, you also need great integrity, good leadership credentials and the ability to motivate, inspire and develop people well,” Wright adds. “And that’s what this independent internal investigation is going to help us sort out.”
Wright says he is proud of the statement he put out with help from others in the building, the one that ended: “We remain focused on building an organization where all employees feel valued and we are invested in shaping the new direction of our franchise.” He even points out similarities between the team’s statement and one earlier that day attributed to Snyder that had some of the same language but also carried a more combative tone.
He says the Snyders have not changed in their support of him and the commitment to changing the franchise’s culture.
“Hopefully people are feeling something different in a very intense moment, which is sort of the make or break, right?” Wright says. “This will show if we’re about it or not, and hopefully this will show we are about something different.”
He laughs, slightly. He has been on the job for two weeks, and already it must feel like much longer than that. But saving Washington’s football team wasn’t going to happen fast. His experience has taught him that, sometimes, it’s best to start with the hard part.