Driving Diversity for the NFL

Jonathan Beane headshot.

Beane spearheads the NFL’s overarching diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, and will collaborate with senior leadership to drive actionable change.

Driving Diversity for the NFL

Jonathan Beane headshot.

Jonathan Beane never played pro football. He never interned for a pro team, nor had he ever imagined that one day he would be an executive with the National Football League. But, 22 years after his graduation from the University at Buffalo (MBA/JD ’98), the NFL announced that it had selected Beane as its senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer.

An executive with many years of experience as a diversity practitioner with major corporations, Beane now spearheads the NFL’s “overarching diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, and will collaborate with senior leadership to drive actionable change,” according to a league statement describing the newly created position.

“Diversity and inclusion will strengthen our organization and aligns with our values,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when Beane’s appointment was announced in August. “Jonathan joins the NFL at an important time, and we look forward to his broad expertise and leadership on diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices for the betterment of our league.”

For Beane, the role is both propitious and exciting.

“I cannot think of a more perfect time to join an iconic organization like the NFL,” Beane says. “There is no other role that I want more than this one. … I came in at a good time.”

Serving Others

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Jonathan moved with his family to Chapel Hill, N.C.—home of the University of North Carolina—when he was four years old. “It was a wonderful place to grow up,” he says. “The weather is great.” He quickly adds that it was also an “academic area that’s big into intellectual thought … and so I was in an environment where you were encouraged to be involved in critical thinking, to think about things, what your role played in it. And so, a lot of my friends that I grew up with, those were the kinds of conversations we had, because that was the kind of environment we were in.”

Academics and critical thinking would have a profound impact on Beane’s life. They were values that were certainly exemplified by his parents. Beane’s mother was a middle school teacher and his father an orthodontist. In fact, his father was the first Black orthodontist in North Carolina—a milestone achievement not overlooked by his proud son.

Photos of Jonathan Beane's childhood.

Even so, in a recent interview with his secondary school—Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.—Beane acknowledged that along his career path he may have unconsciously repressed some negative experiences tied to race.

“When someone talks about the experiences that they had two years ago, or five years ago or 20 years ago, I’ve had some of those same experiences. In fact, I had buried some of those memories, but when I hear someone else’s story, they come back, ‘Oh my gosh … I remember having that feeling.’”

Beane’s early-life observations and experiences undoubtedly contributed to his appreciation for service and empathy toward others that would shape his professional future. “My parents taught me that you should look up to those who serve others,” he says. “Growing up, while other people were going to the beach and doing other fun stuff in the summer, I was in different towns doing volunteer work every single day for at least half of every summer.”

Teamwork, Dedication and Hard Work

Still, like other young men of his generation, Beane managed to find time to discover and participate in organized sports. A professed fan of practically every type of sport, the NFL’s new executive says he has always had a “true, true love of football.” And, although he admits he wasn’t “always the best football player,” he did play at the collegiate level at Dartmouth.

In Beane’s view, teamwork, dedication and working to be successful are all values that can be effectively used in business and in the sports industry. “There has been no other activity that has helped develop me and make me who I am than sports. … All the things I learned playing football, tennis and basketball are the same things I apply today as an executive and leader.”

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Beane spent six months in China teaching English language and culture at Nanchang University in the province of Jiangxi. That was followed by working at a nonprofit peace education center in Carrboro, N.C. While both experiences were personally and professionally fulfilling, it was time to pursue a goal that to him seemed almost preordained.

“When I went to college, I always knew I was going to go to graduate school,” he says. “There was never a time that I questioned that. Even back then, when I was a freshman in college, I had an interest in law school. I had a pretty strong vision of where I wanted to go.”

UB: A Perfect Fit, Academically and in Life

But before he committed, he decided to do a little more research.

“Typical of me, I wanted to talk to lawyers to make sure I understood what it was like,” he says. “If you had it all to do over again,” he’d ask, “what might you have done differently?” To his surprise, several lawyers indicated they wished they’d obtained an additional graduate degree, with a master’s in business administration most frequently cited. Attorney and family friend Ed Peace, JD ’86, BA ’71, told Beane that UB had a JD/MBA program and that it might be the perfect fit.

Although he had offers from other grad programs, Beane heeded Peace’s advice and applied to UB. And, as it turned out, the UB program was a “perfect fit,” not just scholastically, but personally, too. It was at UB that the lawyer-to-be met his future wife (Jodie Roure, PhD ’04, American Studies).

Jonathan Beane and his wife.

“She was a graduate assistant for day students,” Beane fondly recalls. “I was a graduate assistant for night students. We had to work together all the time.” But, with an almost boyish laugh, he acknowledges that their professional conversations eventually included a little more casual tête-à-tête. Their exchanges, “so easy, so natural, just developed into something bigger,” he says.

Today, both remain actively involved with the university. He is on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the School of Law. She is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Arts and Sciences.

After graduating from UB, Beane took a one-year job clerking for Judge Patricia Timmons-Goodson, who served on the North Carolina Court of Appeals at the time. “It was absolutely amazing—a great start to my legal career,” he says. After that, he decided to go to Georgetown University, where he earned yet another degree, an LLM in taxation. That was followed by a three-year stint with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Big Trajectory

But it was his next professional stop, working for Johnson Controls, that Beane calls “the big trajectory” in his career. Although, when he applied for the head of a strategic planning position at the internationally recognized company, he knew it might be a bit of a reach. “I was an analyst, but I knew it was something I’d be really good at, and I knew I had a unique foundation with my JD/MBA from the University at Buffalo.” He got the job and rapidly advanced in executive leadership.

In 2007, after several successful years at Johnson Controls, Beane accepted a job with Time Warner (now WarnerMedia) as the company’s head of diversity, and has been working in this field ever since, eventually ending up as head of diversity and inclusion for Novartis and also for 21st Century Fox.

During his long and stellar career, Beane has been a strong proponent for progressive change in workplace diversity and inclusion philosophy.

More Than a Scorecard

“When I started, it was very rudimentary. Companies were just beginning to say that it’s something we need to focus on,” Beane said in the interview with his high school alma mater. “Early efforts were often just about putting together a score card and showing it once a year to the board of directors and to the CEO: This is how many women and people of color you have. It was very, very basic and focused just on gender and race and ethnicity. There wasn’t any discussion of issues around inclusion, belonging, anti-racism, cultural competency, intersectionality or inclusive leadership.” He was determined to change what he calls a “check-the-box approach.”

Beane understands that his new role as senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for the NFL will be the most challenging of his standout career.

“First and foremost, you will find no corporation or large multinational organization that has 32 other entities that are completely different cultures driven by an owner. Separate entities yet at the same time married to each other. You have 32 owners, totally different personalities, [who are] competitors individually, but partners collectively. Then you have a commissioner and a league office that you have to work with, oversee, [and] support policies and procedures for their bosses [the owners].”

Beane emphasizes that the NFL will present a more united plan for diversity and inclusion. “It’s not just this big collective strategy that when you say, ‘Who owns it?’ everybody just looks around. No, we all own it,” he insists.

While the league continues to require individual clubs to interview at least two minority candidates for a head coach’s position and at least one minority candidate for a general manager’s post, the new strategy goes much further. Any NFL club that develops diverse talent through its organization that then fills openings at another team will be rewarded. “We want to make sure that the message is that we’re operationalizing this in a very healthy way [and] that we want to reward clubs for developing talent. Not reward for simply acquiring talent.”

Even the most senior league execs, including Goodell and each club owner, will have their own specific plan that will be aligned with the league-wide strategy. The league and its club owners do not want disparate plans.

“We don’t want to be disjointed in our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Beane explains. “We want to be collectively aligned with a league-wide strategic plan. We must be going on the same path together.”

And on this, the league office and the 32 uniquely different club owners—each with a distinct personality—seem to agree.

"You will find no corporation or large multinational organization that has 32 other entities that are completely different cultures driven by an owner. Separate entities, yet at the same time married to each other" - Jonathan Beane

Story by Joe Horrigan

Photographs by Martin Scott Powell

Published March 30, 2021