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Jason Wright On Leading The Washington Football Team Amid Multiple Crises

Jason Wright joined the Washington Football Team as the new president while the team reckons with allegations of sexual harassment and changing a racist nickname.
Jason Wright joined the Washington Football Team as the new president while the team reckons with allegations of sexual harassment and changing a racist nickname.

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.

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