‘I don’t want to walk in and be your puppet’: Julie Donaldson sets sights on changing culture within Washington Football Team

Listen to Julie Donaldson, not mincing words, flowing with passion and purpose about the dignity that must be afforded to women working for Dan Snyder’s embattled Washington Football Team.

“I know what it’s like to have a bad culture, the emotional bad culture, and I know what is needed to have a good culture,” Donaldson told USA TODAY Sports. “I will have zero tolerance for anyone who doesn’t fit into our plan going forward. Zero tolerance for (expletive). Zero tolerance for mistreatment of people, male or female.”

That’s undoubtedly a needed message as Donaldson, 42, settles into her new role as a senior vice president of media — a little more than a dozen years after surviving a high-profile domestic assault by a former boyfriend.

"If I can be a voice, even if it’s just for one female or one male who needs to be spoken up for, then this job’s worth it," she said.

It is with great humility & sincere appreciation that I accept the new position of the Washington Football Team’s Senior VP of Media and Content. This is a challenge I’ve been preparing and working toward for nearly 20 yrs in sports media, including the last decade in Washington.

Hired in July after The Washington Post published the first of two reports in which 40 women — all current or former employees — alleged rampant sexual harassment and workplace culture problems within the organization, Donaldson is suddenly the most powerful woman in the franchise beyond Tanya Snyder, the owner’s wife.

She’s making history, too. When Washington opens the 2020 season against the Eagles at an empty FedEx Field on Sunday, Donaldson will debut as the first woman to hold a full-time role in the radio booth for an NFL team. She assembled the three-person team that includes play-by-play man Bram Weinstein and fellow analyst DeAngelo Hall, the former Pro Bowl cornerback.

The broadcast work, she insists, is easy. Donaldson, a longtime reporter and anchor who in the previous two seasons hosted Washington’s pre- and post-game shows on NBC Sports Washington, has an array of fresh ideas to implement.

Yet, like Jason Wright (the first Black team president in NFL history) and new coach Ron Rivera, Donaldson has a job that includes inheriting a mess to clean up as an investigation into the sexual harassment claims and potential legal action threaten to further embarrass a franchise mired in losing in more than just football.

In addition to challenges attached to plans to play a complete season amid the coronavirus pandemic while social justice issues share the stage, the NFL is confronted by a #MeToo scandal involving the franchise that in July finally scrapped its racist team name.

A view of a Washington Football Team practice at FedEx Field. (Photo: Geoff Burke, Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Donaldson, whose résumé is built on work in big-time media markets Miami, New York, Boston and Washington, acknowledged she had some reservations about joining the franchise.

“I’ve heard the stories,” she said. “I knew, before that first article came out, some of the men that were in it; but not to extent and not the details that were revealed.”

In July, Alex Santos, director of pro scouting, and Richard Mann III, assistant director of pro scouting, were relieved of their duties shortly before the first Post report detailed allegations of sexual harassment against them . The second Post report alleged that a lewd video with racy outtakes from a 2008 cheerleader video shoot was ordered by veteran broadcaster and team executive Larry Michael for the pleasure of Snyder and other high-ranking executives. Snyder released a statement denying that he saw or had knowledge of the video; Michael, who retired prior to the release of the stories, also denied involvement with the video.

Why sign up for this? Changing the culture. That’s the catchphrase capturing Donaldson’s challenge.

“If I’m going to be spending a lot of time with my work — we sacrifice a lot for these jobs — it has to be in an environment that I felt comfortable in, that I would want to spend my time working with the people,” Donaldson said. “And I already knew there were a lot of good people in this organization, but I wanted to know what authority do I have to make a difference. I don’t want to walk in and be your puppet and be your pretty face that can do television shows. That’s second-nature to me. Re-doing those shows, that’s easy. But making change is something that’s not, and you have to have the full support of management and the owners to do that.”

Donaldson said the essential direction from Snyder is to help build “a first-class organization.”

Donaldson is an energetic ball of urgency. Within her first four days on the job, she established a seven-member leadership board for a new group, Women’s Initiative Now (WIN), dedicated to supporting the 57 women who represent roughly 20% of the franchise’s non-player employees. The second week, she says that at least 45 of the women participated in a Zoom conference to begin outlining priorities for the group that she maintains was contemplated by other women before she arrived and before the coronavirus changed the workplace flow earlier this year.

When the second Post story dropped, Donaldson said leadership panel members called every other woman in the organization.

“How are you doing? How are you processing this? Can we be a support system for you?” Donaldson said of the nature of the calls. “People just want to be able to share and know that they are seen and that they matter. That’s what this group WIN is all about. I think the women really appreciated that somebody took the time out to check on them. Because it’s been very heavy, and it’s been very emotional. Some women have experienced that or know the women that have spoken up.”

When Wright took over the business operations in late August, Donaldson said that in their first exchange, she presented him with a list of concerns from WIN and invited him to the group’s next meeting.

Some of WIN's objectives include developing human resources avenues to facilitate a credible system for accountability and addressing complaints, social support, mentorship and career development. The group also aims to establish a series of internal seminars and workshops, and to connect with women’s groups of other NFL teams.

“Things are happening,” Donaldson said. “We’re not about talk, we’re about action.”

Still, candid talk is essential to the learning curve as Donaldson embarks on the first management position of her career. So is transparency.

“What I’ve learned is that some of (the women) that have been here for a while, some of them were a little confused that some of the stuff went on, once the specifics came out,” Donaldson said. “ ‘Why didn’t we know? We could have spoken up.’ That’s one of the real problems we have here. There is no legit, real protocol for how you make a complaint and how do you escalate it and how does action get taken on that. So, that’s why I think the culture went on for as long as it did.

“Well, we’re now putting that in place. That will no longer be confusing, for what is reportable, what is or isn’t accepted and how it gets reported."

In 2008, Donaldson testified that she and two female guests were assaulted at her Boston apartment by then-boyfriend Ivan Lattimore. Lattimore pleaded guilty to three assault charges and was sentenced to a year in prison. He was later sentenced to another year for sending Donaldson letters after his conviction. There’s also a lifetime restraining order in place.

“That was eight months of my life,” she said, “from the first date to him going to jail. I was coming out of a divorce. I don’t care if it’s an amiable divorce; divorce is very hard to go through…. I was emotionally upside down and distraught, and I just kind of fell for his lies. Having gone through that and the way the story was told in the media – they victimized me, like it was my fault I got beat up – it was horrifying. They gave the microphone to my abuser in jail. It was salacious and just flat-out wrong.”

Donaldson declares that she grew stronger from that ordeal, refusing to spend the rest of her life playing the role of a victim. She now taps into a deep empathy to draw on in her mission to change the existing culture.

“I know what it’s like to be a victim,” she said. “I know all the emotions that come with being a victim. I know what it’s like to be blamed as a victim. I know what it’s like to overcome that, to say, ‘I’m not going to let this define who I am and what I stand for.' I believe that has prepared me really well to handle the issues that these women are facing. Because I know what it’s like to be mistreated, what it’s like to not have your voice heard. I know what it’s like to be disrespected, looked over, left out, overworked, not appreciated. I can relate to all of those emotions.

"I will be very sensitive to any victim who has the courage to speak up and share their story, because it’s not easy to do.”

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