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The Emperor’s New Tailor: Is Jason Wright talented enough to redeem Dan Snyder’s image?

NFL: Washington Football Team OTA Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

When, almost a year ago, Jason Wright was hired as the Washington Football Team’s President, we were virtually assured two things would happen. First, like Vinny Cerrato and Bruce Allen before him, Wright was going to be tasked with running interference for Dan Snyder and salvaging his reputation while it was at its nadir, having just come off dropping the team’s name and enduring another wave of allegations about having created a toxic organizational culture. I still contend that Wright was Roger Goodell’s hand-picked “fixer” - and final life-line for Snyder - offered in a “take him, or leave it (the NFL)” spirit as Goodell and the other owners grew weary of the undesirable attention Snyder’s actions were bringing to the league.

The second near certainty was that, eventually, Wright would leave the Washington Football Team with a reputation far less favorable than the one he arrived with. Cerrato, Allen, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanahan, Jay Gruden, Scot McCloughan and countless others have had their reputations dulled considerably (or, in some cases, destroyed) just by mere contact with this franchise and Dan Snyder. Even the sainted Joe Gibbs ended up losing a bit of luster after his return. It’s not a question of if, but when, Wright will be tainted as well, because as long as Dan Snyder is running this organization, it’s an inevitability. Recent events suggest the arrival of that day may be sooner, rather than later.

In Nicki Jhabvala’s recent interview with Wright - excerpted above - he tries to spin the tandem of Dan and Tanya Snyder as “brilliant business leaders.” Nevermind the fact that he starts that portion of the interview by saying, “people are always like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, Jason, that’s got to be a party line.” Of course, the reason people are always saying “you’ve got to be kidding me” when Wright tells them the Snyders are “brilliant business leaders” is because nearly all of the facts contradict it.

Let’s start with the most notable and obvious. When the Snyders bought the Washington Redskins in 1999, the team was the most valuable franchise - per Forbes - in the NFL. By 2018, the Redskins had fallen to the 5th most valuable franchise in the league, but more alarmingly, had the 27th slowest growth rate in the league over the Snyders’ tenure. As of 2021, Washington continues to fall, and now stands at the 8th most valuable franchise in the league.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the NFL’s revenue sharing model functions as an “economic ball pit,” insulating incompetent owners from the business consequences of their own actions:

The Redskins, with around a 40% winning percentage over the past two decades of Dan Snyder’s ownership, are the sort of “business” that could only survive in a protectionist system that - while an economic powerhouse in the aggregate - has also produced an abundance of “welfare queens” (think the Redskins, Bengals, and Dolphins) - free riders - sucking at the teat of the NFL’s swollen mammaries.

This track record - particularly in a framework that socializes business risk - certainly isn’t evidence of “brilliant business leadership,” but let’s look at some of the Snyder’s other ventures.

Six Flags

In 2005, Snyder bought a minority share of the the amusement park company Six Flags. A few year later, Snyder decided to get “more involved” in the operations of the organization, taking control of the board - by adding individuals like Harvey Weinstein to it - and inserting his buddy Mark Shapiro as CEO of the company, as well as getting himself appointed as chair of the board. In 2009, Six Flags declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, in significant part due to Shapiro’s moves. Eventually, most of the company ended up in the hands of lenders and Shapiro and Snyder were removed from their positions.

Original Americans Foundation

In 2014, Dan Snyder create the non-profit Original Americans Foundation (OAF) in an effort to counter blowback from the “Redskins” name controversy. Nominally, however, the OAF was incorporated to “address the urgent challenges plaguing Indian country based on what tribal leaders tell us they need most.” Snyder kicked off the organization’s founding with a whirlwind tour of 26 reservations in 20 states by team representatives. The Foundation was initiated with a $5M contribution in 2014, and several smaller donations over the following years:

Less than four years after that announcement, the Original Americans Foundation was nearly a million dollars in the red. According to IRS filings, Washington’s contributions to the fund had declined from $5 million in fiscal 2015 to $500,000 in 2018. Even with declining contributions, salaries and operating expenses remained constant at over $750,000 per year. By fiscal 2018, grants to Native American communities had dwindled to barely 7 percent of the charity’s initial grants, and by fiscal 2019, that number had zeroed out entirely.

Not exactly the work of a financial mastermind.

Naked and Afraid

Having cast his Rasputin into the wilderness in late 2019, as part of an effort to shift his own responsibility for the team’s ineptitude onto an underling, Snyder was a man backed into a corner. Faced with the fact that his miniature golfing partner and drinking buddy was gone, Snyder turned to the franchise’s North Star, Joe Gibbs. Gibbs helped deliver Head Coach Ron Rivera into Snyder’s hands, albeit under the promise that Rivera would have near absolute control over the team’s football operations.

Meanwhile, a short time later, despite having temporarily salvaged football operations by putting them into the hands of one of the most highly respected coaches in the league, the business operations side of his football franchise would experience turbulent waters. In the wake of the economic downturn associated with COVID-19, Snyder allegedly withheld dividend payments from his minority partners, fomenting a division between the two parties that would grow throughout the summer of 2020, as the call for the team to change its name reached an all-time high.

Ultimately, in mid-July, the team would drop the “Redskins” moniker, but the heat wouldn’t stay off Snyder for long. That same month, additional sexual harassment allegations would come out against Snyder and the team, and by late summer the NFL had taken the, still unresolved, investigation of those allegations over.

Enter Mr. Wright

As the sexual harassment allegations swirled in mid-August 2020, like an angel from heaven, former NFL running back and management consulting wunderkind Jason Wright was delivered into Dan Snyder’s lap.

Wright checked all of the boxes: Exceedingly bright, NFL experience, charismatic, ambitious, and, particularly importantly in this case, good for the league’s perception - the very antithesis of what Daniel Snyder had been for most of his 20+ years owning the team. His hiring was lauded by those who had been working for decades to build minority representation in leadership roles in the NFL:

“Some people, you can see great things in them, and you could just see it in him,” Graves, the top decision-maker of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said on the phone. “He was the kind of guy, even back then, who people would just look at and say, ‘This guy is going to be leading somebody’s corporation someday.’ ”

In the wake of his hiring, I don’t recall one negative account about Wright. Quite the contrary. Among other achievements, Wright was a former NFLPA representative and made partner in near record time at McKinsey & Company after graduating from the University of Chicago with an MBA. It’s this last stop, in particular, that has likely prepared him for his toughest job-to-date, convincing the world that Dan Snyder is both a decent person and capable of owning a successful NFL team.

McKinsey & Company

Wright’s position before coming to work with the WFT was with one of the leading consulting companies in the country, McKinsey & Company, or “The Firm” as it likes to be known:

Prior to joining the Washington Football Team, Jason was a partner in McKinsey & Company’s Washington DC office. His work focused on expanding the value of large, complex organizations through operations and culture transformations. Jason has specialized in steering companies through their toughest moments- in crisis and turnaround scenarios. Projects have covered topics from systemic personnel misconduct to financial distress to COVID-19 response.

“The Firm” is - understandably - highly secretive about its clients and the work that it does for them. I’ve seen a consultant’s relationship to a business compared to a psychologist’s relationship with her client, and I think the analogy holds. Privacy is paramount.

In any case, in terms of what’s publicly available about Wright’s time at McKinsey, we know he worked with companies on improving their organizational culture and workplace diversity. He also co-authored a paper on exploring the wealth gap between blacks and whites.

Late last year, Wright did an interview with Sports Innovation Lab, and one of the questions that came up was how his work at McKinsey prepared him for the WFT. Wright’s revealing response is below:

“At McKinsey I had two lives. I led, and I was a leader in our operations practice, so that’s hardcore transformation, whether that’s a power plant, or university operations, or a medical device company's whatever it is. Redoing their processes, thinking about how culture empowers that. So all the complex things that you would think about in transforming a business at a critical time.

And the thing with McKinsey is, you don’t bring in McKinsey and pay those fees unless you’ve really got something to solve. And so, we were working on really complex problems under a lot of heat, which is really relevant to the role that I stepped into here at the Washington Football Team.

Interviewer: Did you hire McKinsey!?!

I did, actually. Oh, I just gave up client confidentiality. I didn’t say that. I have sought them for advice. I may or may not have hired them, but yes, they are helpful.

On the flip side, when you think about diversity and inclusion and the work that a firm like McKinsey does, you also don’t get brought in on some BS. And, because of that, we were doing pretty meaningful work.”

Wright continues his discussion emphasizing how he “made a business case for diversity” to his clients. However, it’s the first element of this response, the “hardcore transformation” that applies to the WFT situation most directly.

What do these “hardcore transformations” look like at McKinsey? Surely, most of them are almost entirely benign, but others are more nefarious. Earlier this year, the firm agreed to a multi-state settlement of $573M for its role in fueling the opioid crisis in the US. Details of the allegations that led to the settlement are below:

The complaint details the alleged marketing tactics McKinsey engaged in, especially with relation to how the company advised Purdue and individual members of the Sackler family on how to maximize profits from its opioid products, including targeting high-volume opioid prescribers, using specific messaging to get physicians to prescribe more OxyContin to more patients, and circumventing pharmacy restrictions to delivery high-dose prescriptions.

According to the New York complaint, McKinsey recommended Purdue: focus sales calls on high-volume opioid prescribers (including those who wrote as many as 25 times as many OxyContin prescriptions as others); remove sales representative discretion in target prescribers; focus marketing messaging to titrate to higher, more lucrative dosages; significantly increase the number of sales visits to high-volume prescribers; and create an alternative model for how patients receive OxyContin, including direct distribution to patients and pharmacies.

Was Wright involved in this particular consultation? There’s no evidence he was, but it does reveal a tenet of the corporate culture that he was raised in: Help the client increase their business success by taking whatever steps are necessary to get there, no matter how marginal. These guys play for keeps.

In Control

Less than a year after his hiring, Wright has already taken tight control of the messaging, and clearly recognizes the need to paper over both his boss’s awkwardness and his proclivity for sticking his foot in his mouth, as evidenced in the episode below:

In the - exceedingly rare - interview with Snyder, as he was touring newly built stadiums across the world, Wright allowed Snyder an initial length of leash. After about a minute and a half of Snyder stammering through poorly articulated, staccato responses, Wright stepped in:

Interviewer: So [you’re traveling] all over Europe [to look at] the football stadiums there?

Wright: I mean we’re taking inspiration from everywhere, because if we’re going to do something that our fans really deserve - which is cutting edge and innovative - we’ve got to take in all the ideas. So we’re absorbing, and the good thing is, we don’t know where we’re going to be at: DC, Maryland, or Virginia. We’ve got great partners out there. People across the government there and economic development in those organizations that want to work with us, so we can be creative and bring some of these ideas back. While we’re here looking at this [the LA Rams/Chargers stadium].

Interviewer: In DC, will there be a presidential suite?

Wright: The President and Vice President are always welcome at Washington Football Team games. And will always be welcome at WFT games for sure.

Snyder: Always.

Interviewer: Any development on the permanent name change?

Wright: No, continuing to work hard on that. Continuing to work hard.

Snyder: We’ll let you know soon.

Interviewer: People seem to love the “Washington Football Team,” is there any chance that might stick?

Wright: We’re working hard. We’re working hard. There’s so many different directions it can go. Our fans are pretty clear though, we’ve got some pretty good direction.

By the end of the interview, Wright was fully in command.

Already Paying Dividends

As fate would have it, the NFL would issue its “sanctions” on Dan Snyder for fostering a toxic workplace culture within the Washington Football organization while I was in the middle of writing this piece. The most notable feature of the league’s decision on the matter is the rather pathetic “penalty” - a $10M fine, sensitivity training, and some voluntary time away for “Mr. Snyder” - but the other striking element is the league’s justification for taking it easy on the old chap: “The Snyders have hired a new, highly qualified and diverse team of executives on both the football and business sides of the club. These include club president Jason Wright....”

Will Jason Wright be able to continue to dress up Washington’s nakedly inept despot? He’s going to try his hardest, but it won’t happen unless the crowd lets him.

Poll

Do you think Jason Wright will be able to salvage Dan Snyder’s image?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Yes, and that’s a good thing.
    (271 votes)
  • 24%
    Yes, and that’s a bad thing.
    (187 votes)
  • 38%
    No.
    (291 votes)
749 votes total Vote Now