In Washington, Ron Rivera has opportunity to lead like never before
The NFL’s most powerful minority head coach in a generation is tasked with restoring confidence in a franchise that has been adrift under Dan Snyder
No one needs to tell Ron Rivera that Washington’s embattled franchise requires help. At least on the field, Rivera knows what he signed up for as the team’s head coach. What’s occurring off of it, however, wasn’t in the job description.
Already in an unusually prominent position for a coach amid the whirlwind of activity to rename the franchise, Rivera was thrust out front again Thursday while the club responded to a stunning report in The Washington Post in which 15 women who previously worked for Washington’s franchise allege sexual harassment by then-Washington staffers. The article paints a horrific picture of the Washington team’s corporate culture under owner Daniel Snyder, who was not the subject of allegations in the report.
Less than seven months into his tenure and yet to coach a game, Rivera nevertheless faces a huge deficit because of the mess he inherited. Officially empowered to lead the entire organization, Rivera is tasked with restoring confidence in a once-successful franchise that has been adrift under Snyder. Clearly, it won’t be easy. But Rivera, the NFL’s most powerful minority head coach in a generation, has embraced the challenge, vowing to make Washington better. He made strong comments about the culture change coming to Washington – one way or another.
“Biggest thing is that we have to move forward from this and make sure everybody understands we have policies that we will follow and that we have an open-door policy with no retribution,” Rivera wrote in a text message to ESPN. “Plus my daughter works for the team and I sure as hell am not going to allow any of this!”
If Rivera succeeds as Washington’s leader, he could spur a transformative shift in inclusive hiring for a league failing on that front.
Rivera possesses what it takes to become a major change agent, said Rod Graves of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
“We know that success obviously gets the most attention in the league, and teams often follow what has been shown to work on other teams,” Graves, the top decision-maker in the group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion, said on the phone.
“If teams see [a blueprint] that’s working, they won’t hesitate to follow it. And if it really works, if the whole league can’t help but take notice, that could do a lot to move the ball forward for qualified candidates. They’re out there. They just need an opportunity.”
In the last three hiring cycles, there have been 20 head-coach openings but only one coach of color has been hired in each cycle (Rivera, who is Latino, filled the slot in the last one). Entering the 2020 season, the league will have only four minority head coaches. The NFL has only two African American general managers and has never had a Black team president.
Simply put, rebuilding Washington into a professional, consistent winner would be akin to what NASA accomplished in reaching the moon. The achievement would be so monumental, even aspiring to the goal boggles the mind.
To be sure, the NFL has had successful minority head coaches. Tony Dungy, the first Black head coach to win a Super Bowl title, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twice, Mike Tomlin led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl, winning one championship. Beginning in 1992, Dennis Green guided the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs eight times in a span of nine seasons. Never, though, has a minority head coach had a higher hill to climb.
The long-running controversy over the team’s former name, which many considered a racist slur toward Native Americans, is but one of many examples of Snyder’s flair for mismanagement. Adept at making bad situations worse, Snyder dug in and insisted he would never change the name, angering those on the other side of the table. He recently bowed to public pressure from corporate sponsors, who are reevaluating their positions on matters of race following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. Many NFL observers found it odd that Rivera has occupied a key role in the process, which resulted in the team announcing July 13 that a new name will be forthcoming, because such decisions are not usually in the purview of on-field staff.
But Rivera has more power than any NFL head coach of color since Tom Flores, who for six seasons, beginning in 1989, led the Seattle Seahawks, first as club president and general manager and then as the team’s head coach. Just as Flores was once at the center of power in Seattle, everything in Washington’s facility revolves around the two-time Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year (2013 and ’15), who led the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl 50.
Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University and author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, believes that Rivera is the right man at this moment for Washington and the NFL.
“Ron Rivera has as much integrity as any head coach in this league. He will not stand for what’s been going on,” Duru wrote in a text message to ESPN. “If anyone can transform the organizational culture at the club, he can.”
Rivera, meanwhile, faces an equally heavy lift in the part of the gig he knows best.
Last season, Washington went 3-13 and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in as many seasons. The team has five postseason appearances in Snyder’s 21 seasons as owner, and only two since the 2008 season. With no shortage of hurdles to clear, Rivera steps into the spotlight with a chance to uplift minority NFL officials the way Doug Williams once seized an opportunity to elevate Black quarterbacks. Williams’ iconic performance in becoming the first African American passer to win the Super Bowl and be selected the game’s MVP prompted league decision-makers to reevaluate their anachronistic ideas about the position. Rebuilding Washington could resonate similarly. That’s how far the franchise has fallen.
“Ron is not just a great coach, he’s one of the best leaders in the game,” Graves said. “Around the league, everyone knows what Ron is capable of doing. For a lot of reasons, important reasons, people will be watching as he moves forward in Washington.”
After 36 years in the game as a player and coach, Rivera is ready for this moment. And for the coaches of color rooting for him, they are as well.