On Wednesday, just more than a month into 2021, Ron Rivera — one of five minority head coaches across the league — introduced his Black general manager in a news briefing in which he also announced that he had promoted a Black man to a prominent position in the personnel department. He has installed a Black woman as a full-time assistant coach. The team’s president is a Black man, the first in the history of the NFL.
Washington, as an accepting and multicultural place to work? All these months later, the apparent changes in how this organization operates mean Washington, of all franchises — Neanderthal for so long on so many fronts — is actually now a leader. The Football Team — like the diverse coaching staffs at this year’s Super Bowl — is showing the league what’s possible when you welcome all perspectives.
“As far as the diversity goes, it’s not planned,” Rivera said in his video introduction of Martin Mayhew as the team’s general manager, which also included the promotion of Eric Stokes to senior director of player personnel.
It’s great to say it’s not planned, because that suggests it’s in Rivera’s fiber. He said Wednesday that when he coached the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, he was told he had the most diverse coaching staff in the league. “I didn’t know that,” he said. Rather, he understands when people from all walks of life are considered for important positions, the resulting workforce will be more diverse — and stronger for it.
Which all fits what Jason Wright, the aforementioned first Black team president in NFL history, told HBO in an interview aired this week. “We’ve brought in women,” Wright said. “We’ve brought in people of color, not just for those purposes but because we know if we have a diverse team, we actually get the better outcomes.”
There’s what you’re looking for at all levels of this organization, so woebegone for so long: progress. After Rivera inherited a 3-13 team and coached it to a 7-9 season — and an unexpected division championship — there is some progress on the field, even as there are still, judging by Wednesday’s news conference, 568 unanswered questions about who will play quarterback in 2021 and beyond.
Yet because this outfit has been so beset by so many off-the-field issues for so long, the progress off the field right now is as important. Maybe Washington is finally winning off the field! No, seriously, this matters. Taking such hiring steps — in any market — should seem obvious in 2021, and yet look around the NFL, where Black assistant coaches continue to be passed over for top jobs. The league consists of 70 percent Black players, yet only five of 32 general managers are Black.
That’s less than 16 percent of head coaches and top personnel execs who are not White, which sends a terrible message to the players who sacrifice their bodies every Sunday: You’re good enough to play but not considered smart enough or capable enough to lead or build.
Mayhew’s approach in the midst of that reality: Ignore it and work. After a playing career that included time in Washington, he rose to a general manager’s job with Detroit in 2008, was fired in 2015, then held front-office jobs with the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Given the league’s landscape, it’s reasonable for a Black man who had one chance to wonder whether he would ever get another.
“From my standpoint I certainly felt very capable throughout the time I was with New York and with San Francisco,” Mayhew said. “But I was a 10th-round draft choice, and it probably colors my perspective about this league, and that is that nothing’s promised to anybody. There were a number of guys who I’ve met who are personnel guys in this business who I think are very capable of being GMs. But there’s nothing promised.”
This being Washington, there are caveats. This shift in optics and substance comes under the ownership of Daniel Snyder, the same man who (at worst) created and (at best) allowed a workplace that made so many women feel uncomfortable or threatened. After more than two decades at the helm, it’s hard to imagine he is a fundamentally changed man. During Wednesday’s news conference, new player personnel executive Marty Hurney, Mayhew and Rivera called Snyder “passionate,” talked about his desire to win and credited him for giving them all the tools they need — the same words said by so many coaches and executives from years gone by.
It’s also worth noting that Snyder’s franchise previously appeared to have little interest in fostering a diverse culture because it openly flouted the NFL’s rules meant to encourage it. Take December 2009, when Bruce Allen was abruptly hired to replace Vinny Cerrato as the head of the team’s football operation — without anything that appeared to be an interview process with multiple candidates. When Allen fired Jim Zorn as the coach, the team turned to Mike Shanahan without even a token interview or thought of obeying the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires interviews of minority candidates.
Maybe those days are past — not because of Snyder but because of Rivera, who has final say over Hurney and Mayhew on all things football. Rivera’s impact on the organization seems thorough. He was already here when Wright was hired to replace Allen as team president — exactly the kind of statement the team needed to make with such a forward-facing position. He was here when the team hired Julie Donaldson to oversee its media operations, a move that made her the franchise’s highest-ranking woman and fully cut itself off from the days of Larry Michael, among those accused by women of inappropriate behavior. And Rivera himself hired Jennifer King as an assistant coach — fully knowing the message that could send to young women about their opportunities in the NFL.
“I do think it is important that there is diversity,” Rivera said. “I think that’s huge, whether it’s by race or gender. I just think that making sure things are all equal and everybody’s given the opportunity” is important.
There is no more important decision for Rivera, Hurney and Mayhew to make this offseason than how to handle the quarterback position, so expect that story to have legs through free agency and into the draft. In 2020, 7-9 may have delivered the NFC East crown, but in most years, it’s barely enough to keep your job, and Rivera knows that.
But before that move can be made, Rivera has somehow made Washington into something it hasn’t been in the entirety of Snyder’s reign: a leader, in anything. “We certainly are at the forefront,” Mayhew said. The forefront in making people of all races and genders feel welcome and valued as they work toward winning more football games. Imagine that.