From struggling to make the team roster, Jason Wright became the first Black president of an NFL team

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 24, 2024 9:51 AM EDT
Jason Wright. Photo credit: McKinsey & Company

After an outstanding college football career, Jason Wright went unselected in the NFL Draft. He finally got into a team but experienced financial difficulties and was fired almost ten times before settling into a final roster. Wright struggled for a chance to play in the NFL and when the time came to move on, he embraced the promise of a new challenge. This is how he went from struggling for a roster spot to making history as the first Black president of an NFL team.

“A lot of times we don’t see it ourselves because we’re nose to the grindstone. We’re just trying to get an A on the paper, we’re trying to deliver in our existing job. It’s easy to not take the step back and think about what we can do that’s bigger and broader,” Wright said about the importance of looking at the bigger picture.

Wright comes from a long line of people who create opportunities for themselves and others. His father was a civil rights activist turned salesman and later entrepreneur while his mother was a flight attendant. The family has a strong civil rights history and his grandfather started several NAACP chapters in Texas. Wright’s parents tried to protect him from a rough neighborhood by enrolling him into sports, Boy Scouts and other co-curriculum programs. Their influence has had a great impact on his life and professional trajectory.

He did well in football and track during high school and ultimately attended Northwestern University on a football scholarship. While on the Northwestern Wildcats football team, Wright was named co-MVP of the 2003 Motor City Bowl and named to the 2003 All-Big Ten Conference football team. He was the team’s fourth all-time leading rusher and the fourth leading scorer by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology. Although he attended the NFL Combine, Wright pace was questioned and he went unselected in the 2004 NFL Draft.

But Wright wasn’t about to give up.
He was committed committed to playing in the NFL and making his family proud. Failure wasn’t an option, at least not for Wright. He spent his first season and a half in the league getting fired every other week. He joined the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent but was cut before the end of the preseason. He then signed with the Atlanta Falcons practice squad where he was released and re-signed several times and appeared in only two games.

Following the football dream proved to be financially unsustainable as only players on the roster got paid. While living in Atlanta, Wright ran out of money and ended up living in a motel. He had to move in with his 80-year-old aunt and uncle who lived quite far from the practice facility in Flowery Branch.

“That was my first moment to really be in the grind and to see that this didn’t come easily. To spend that year and a half being told you’re not good enough, and finding a way to reestablish your confidence, was really important for me and carried over into what I did outside of football,” Wright said of the tribulations he faced at the start of his NFL career.

His fortunes turned for the better when Wright signed with the Cleveland Browns in 2005 – his first major contract. He played with the Browns for three seasons until signing a two-year $2 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals in 2009. He served as the Cardinals team captain and was their NFLPA representative during the 2011 NFL lockout.

After a tumultuous eight years in the NFL, Wright was ready for a new challenge. He had done a lot of community work and wanted to understand how to generate capital. He retired from football and enrolled to business school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Armed with an MBA, Wright became a partner in McKinsey & Company’s Washington DC office. He was at the forefront of helping large, complex organizations navigate operations and culture transformations.

Wright specialized in steering companies through crises and turnaround scenarios such as systemic personnel misconduct, financial distress and COVID-19 response. He led McKinsey’s global inclusion strategy and was at the forefront of the launch of the company’s anti-racism and inclusion strategy. He also co-founded the Black Economic Institute, a research entity that analyzes the racial wealth gap and advocates racial equity in corporate America. When the Washington Commanders came calling, Wright was more than ready.

At 38, Wright made history as the first African-American and youngest person at the time to become president of an NFL team. The Washington football team was reeling from revelations of a toxic workplace environment especially for women. Amidst shareholder activism and calls to sell the franchise, the NFL fined the team $10 million. Wright’s first assignment was momentous, he had to end over two decades’ worth of dysfunction and toxicity and restore the organization’s image.

Wright embraced the challenge to turnaround the Washington football team.
“This role was exciting to me because I saw an opportunity to bring together my identity as a football player with my identity as an analytic thinker and business leader at a time of big transformation.”

In a prompt turnaround, the team gave up its divisive team name (formerly Washington Redskins) after 87 years and rebranded into the Washington Commanders. Wright has since been able to establish a more friendly and diverse working culture within the organization. Today, nearly 50 percent of Commander’s executives are people of color (nearly three times the league average). This diverse group has enabled Wright to build a better on-field product and generate over $500 million in revenue.

Last year, the Commanders’ $6 billion acquisition made history as the most expensive sports team sale. The new owners retained Wright and looked to him to fulfil their vision for the franchise. His experience as an NFL player and corporate leader has enabled him to change the team’s entrenched culture and set the pace for the future. Wright’s story is not only inspiring for the players that he mentors but also for anyone looking to change their life.