Meet Kevin Warren, the Highest-Ranking Black Executive in the NFL

The NFL has an executive diversity problem. We ask the highest-ranking black executive how to change that.

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Complex Original

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Like most professional sports leagues, the NFL has general expectations for how its teams format their websites. Each site looks pretty much the same, with a standard menu bar and a drop-down item labeled "Team." Most have a link marked "Front Office," for fans to see who runs the operations on the business side. Sadly, if you were to check out who occupies these positions on most NFL team websites, you might be surprised by the lack of diversity among the executive faces. (Or, perhaps, not very surprised.)

Check out the NFC East, for instance. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants—two famously family-run franchises—each have only four non-football executives listed and none of them is a minority. The Philadelphia Eagles boast undoubtedly the longest front office listing in the division, yet when you look for a minority executive on the business side, you find yourself coming up short. The lone African-American executive on the business side can be found working for the Washington Redskins (shout out to senior VP of communications Tony Wyllie!), a club unwilling to relent on a team name that's considered so offensive some outlets and broadcasters won't even say it.

All of this begs the question: Is this what diversity is supposed to look like in 2016 for the world's richest sport in the world's richest country?

A more diverse corporate environment is something Kevin Warren—chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings and the highest-ranking African-American executive in the NFL—hopes to make a reality in the near future. A member of the NFL Committee on Workplace Diversity, Kevin Warren first cut his teeth as a lawyer before working his way into the league as a VP of player programs and football legal counsel for the St. Louis Rams. Having spent the better part of his 26-year career under the employ of the NFL and seeing many of these issues firsthand, Warren understands the importance of prioritizing inclusion off of the field and outside of the coaches room. The NFL is a $45 billion behemoth; most of the decisions that impact that bottom line happen in the executive conference room—not in the end zone.

I recently met Kevin in Minneapolis while touring the Vikings’ new U.S. Bank Stadium, and was first struck by the team openly referring to him as “the highest-ranking African-American executive working on the business side for a team in the NFL.” In 2003, the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule—a policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. But, as I learned from Kevin, there’s no Rooney Rule for the executive side. So I decided to give him a call to find out how he became the first black COO in the NFL, what the league needs to do to become more inclusionary, and when we can expect him to take NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's job.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

There’s clearly a lack of black executives in the NFL. Why is that?
Well, I hold myself responsible on a go-forward basis to help develop the pipeline of young diverse candidates for the NFL. Whether that’s gender diversity or color diversity, I just kind of hold myself responsible to help to grow that. I’m going to do everything I possibly can do to help grow that base. We have to develop a pipeline of young talented women, men, and people of color, so when opportunities arise—even at an entry-level position—they can get those jobs.

Every once in awhile, you’ll get one of those top-tier jobs that someone has hired for that may be an “outsider.” But typically, what I’m trying to do is get a pool of candidates who are able to start at entry-level jobs. So they can start as managers, end up as directors, and then get promoted to senior directors, and then to vice presidents and EVP’s, promoted to COO’s, and then hopefully to Presidents and CEO’s. What we have to do is continually grow good people, regardless of their color.

It's always a pleasure catching up with a man of character, integrity, & faith , Kevin Warren COO of the #Vikings

— JB James Brown (@JBsportscaster) December 11, 2015

How are you personally, and the NFL broadly, taking responsibility for diversity at the executive level?
I think progress has been made and I think we’re all focused on continuously making progress. We’ve got the NFL Committee on Workplace Diversity, run by Katie Blackburn,  the daughter of Mike Brown and the granddaughter of Paul Brown. If you look at the history of the Brown family, even what her grandfather Paul Brown did with the Cleveland Browns, diversity was really important to him. On the committee, we meet and deal with issues as far as being a resource to help grow the pool, and I think if you look at it, it’s clear the pool has grown. There have been prominent women not only at the league office who have been promoted. You look at Dawn Hudson, who’s the CMO of the league. Kimberly Fields who started with us at the league is now an SVP, and she’s an African-American woman. We’re growing at the league level, but also at the team level. We just restructured our franchise here, we have nine vice presidents, three of which are women. Our General Council who we just hired is a former 18-year lawyer at Cargill—her name is Karin Nelsen and she’s now our VP of Legal Affairs. It will be interesting over the next three-to-five years to see how the workforce has changed and improved from a diversity standpoint.

Once we really break through and there’s an African American person, male or female, that’s able to become an owner in the NFL—can you imagine the positive impact that will have for the league?

You keep using words like "pipeline" and "pool" when discussing how the NFL gets their talent. Is that more specific to the NFL than other leagues?
I think a lot of the leagues are like that. If you see a Wall Street executive go to a Fortune 500 company, that person has been groomed for many years, or even hired by a competitor. They know the industry. You very rarely see someone jump from an unrelated industry. We just started something here called ILRP—it’s basically a rotational program. So a young executive rotational program where we’re gonna hire two people this year who will spend one to two years with us and get the opportunity to work in every different department for six months. Hopefully those people end up populating our organization in the future or end up with other clubs or other sports leagues. But the key to it is really finding good talent, training them, exposing them, and I think it's one of the things I know we’re focusing on here with the Vikings.

The NFL seems more conservative when compared with the the NBA or NHL. Does this make them slow to act with regard to diversity? 
No. I think the NFL is conscientious in making positive, deliberate decisions because, again, our game is different. The beautiful thing about the NFL is that we have 16 regular season games and playoff games, but that also turns out to that can be a good and a bad part of it. So I think because of that we have to be very circumspect on everything we do and how to structure everything. All teams know that what we do impacts the league. We’re not individual teams on an island by ourselves—we have to work together.

"You will know how people feel about you when you are let in the room when they talk about money. " @Vikings Kevin Warren #FPA #SuperBowl50

— RunLifesCourse (@temekoruns) February 5, 2016

I'm curious as to how things—just from your first-person perspective—have changed from those early days to now. Early in your career, did you hear excuses as to why there weren't more minorities in these roles? What was the conversation then and what were their thoughts at that point?
The conversation has probably stayed the same over time. I think overall, from a societal standpoint, people have become very cognizant and conscientious of giving people from diverse backgrounds opportunities. I think it has been very helpful. President Obama has done an incredible job of doing that. If we have a person of color who can be President of the United States of America, then quite naturally, they can be given opportunities on Wall Street and in sports, and we’ve seen that and you will see that as time goes forward.

It's funny you mention Obama. Spike Lee once said that it's easier for an African-American to become the President than the head of a movie studio.
I’m just glad people are talking about it. I know there are African-Americans now working diligently everyday to become an owner in the NFL. They’re getting groups organized and doing everything they possibly can to become an owner in the league. So it’s music to my ears to hear that. Once we really break through and there’s an African American person, male or female, that’s able to become an owner in the NFL—can you imagine the positive impact that will have for the league? Not only for a diversity of thought, but just from a good business standpoint. I’ll be ecstatic when the day comes that a person who looks like me can be standing at the podium next to the commissioner and announce that either he or she has been able to buy a general partner interest in the NFL. And I feel very strongly that it isn’t too far away.

So many people treat these opportunities like jobs. You need to treat it as your life, constantly moving towards a goal.

In your opinion, in regards to the Rooney Rule and female officials, do you think the league was faster to get minorities in these more visible on-camera roles and slower to see them as a suit behind a closed door?
No, I think it goes back to making sure that we develop a pool. This is really what it’s about. It’s been said that 44 percent of our fan base of Vikings season ticket holders are women. So I imagine that the more we can empower women, the better off we’ll be. Inclusion makes sense; it makes good common sense and good business sense.

What advice would you give to young women and minorities who want to break into the NFL’s business side?
Here’s my advice. First, you need to be willing to take any opportunity to get into this business. How you enter is not how you grow, or how you exit. You need to be willing to take even jobs that in your mind may be "beneath you." When you get those opportunities, you need to become the hardest worker, the most prepared, the most diligent person in the organization.

So many people treat these opportunities like jobs. You need to treat it as your life, constantly moving towards a goal. As you go up the ladder it becomes really thin. And the steps aren’t wide. Many people have called me recently and said ‘I’ve never even heard of you. Did you just start doing that?’ In this business, overnight success can take 10-to-15 years.

One last question. How long until you take Roger Goodell's job?
[Laughs.] No, no, no, that’s a tough, tough job. He’s done an excellent job. I mean, you’re talking about dealing with 32 owners, you’re talking about dealing with 32 different franchises, all the constituencies, all of our sponsors, and vendors, and the union, and the players. During his tenure, the league has grown, we’ve dealt with some difficult issues and I think he’s handled them with style and grace. No thanks.

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