UB Alum, Jonathan Beane, is Using Passion and Service to Revamp NFL DEI

Photo via: Martin Scott Powell

Jonathan Beane is the NFL’s Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and is changing the DEI landscape of the League.

Passion. A seven-letter word that defines Jonathan Beane, his life, and his career. From being born in Rochester, NY and raised in North Carolina — learning that the highest level of nobility is service — to now pioneering the National Football League’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”) program. Beane is leading the charge of creating an environment where employees can seamlessly discuss DEI and he is doing it, with passion. The goal? To create an organizational culture where the employees reflect the League’s fanbase.

“Success looks like when our employee base at the clubs and at the League office looks like our fanbase. That is success from a diversity perspective,” Beane said. “When we have our employees at the club and League office role modeling inclusive behaviors on a daily basis, which ensures that we are being respectful of everyone and truly appreciating the value proposition of diversity and treating everyone with respect where we don’t have issues of harassment, discrimination and all of that, that’s what success looks like.”

Beane, hired by the NFL in 2020 to be the Senior Vice President and Chief  Diversity and Inclusion Officer, is overhauling the NFL’s DEI program using strategy, accountability, data, analytics, and training to create a clear ‘north star’ to ensure DEI is thoroughly integrated into the NFL’s DNA. However, Beane did not always think he would one day be in charge of the most powerful sports League in America.

Growing up, Beane, the youngest of three children, had two tremendous role models as parents. Beane’s father was the first Black orthodontist in North Carolina and valedictorian of his dental class. His mother was an educator, mentor, and role model. Beane’s parents taught him the core value of service since he could speak. He also learned that there is one race, the human race.

“When you are told that and you believe it . . . you are then going to see other people like that,” Beane said. “That is an important part because then I will apply the golden rule to everybody.”

The golden rule and an exceptional outlook helped Beane navigate the world as a black kid growing up in America. Beane strongly and whole-heartedly believes that we are all different and we are all beautiful and that is what gives him his superpower: the superpower of confidence in a world that many feel out of place in. Nobody could tell him that he was ‘less-than.’

“I might have moments of imposter syndrome,” Beane said. “But overall, I fundamentally, deeply believe that there is greatness in all of us and that we are only as good as our collective and I was raised that way so I always felt that I belonged in the room.”

These lessons, taught by his parents, created a path for Beane that he did not even recognize himself. Having the ability to talk about DEI issues with his mother from a young age gave Beane an outlook of both how the world works and how it should work. The tutelage of his mother would shape the remainder of his life.

Going into college, Beane always knew that he wanted to attend law school— it was something innate in him. Beane attended Dartmouth College for his undergraduate degree. After finishing, Beane talked with practicing attorneys, and many said they wished they received an MBA. This led Beane to the University of Buffalo where he would not only attend law school but the business school as well, pursing UB’s JD/MBA program.

However, to tell Beane’s full story, it is important to take a step back. Prior to attending graduate school at UB, Beane found himself teaching in China — another role that unbeknownst to him, impacted his ability to succeed in the DEI space. Living and teaching in China for six months helped Beane further be comfortable being uncomfortable and understand others culturally different from himself.

“I do not think I saw one other black person,” Beane said. “I remember I used to walk around, and you wouldn’t believe it — hundreds of people walking and glaring because they may not have seen someone that looked like me before or it was so rare that that they were like just going to follow and see what happened. But I’ve never felt uncomfortable being uncomfortable or never had this sense of needing to be around a bunch of people who had my background or looked like me.”

The confidence of being the ‘only’ in a room is something Beane prides himself on. Understanding those who are different from him is something that Beane believes as a society everyone must build and be better at. It is imperative to spend time and get to know each other, to understand each other. Furthermore, as Beane notes, the lessons he learned during his time in China have strengthened his DEI skills in his role today.

“When you are talking about a sport, especially football and basketball and any of these major sports — when it comes to your teammates, a lot of times you do not care what their background is,” Beane said. “You just want them to be a good teammate and a good athlete and help you win. There is a purity to it which is wonderful.”

Moving forward, Beane felt the JD/MBA program helped differentiate him— however, it was not enough. Beane clerked for a year and thereafter received his LLM in taxation from Georgetown University. His plan was to work as a transaction attorney — and he did, working at PWC. But still, Beane was unsatisfied. Feeling stuck at his desk, Beane spent his days looking through financial documents with little human interaction; Beane craved creativity. Passion had always been Beane’s driving force and he lacked it in his role.

Having spent his whole life building himself up and still feeling unfulfilled, Beane sought out a career coach. The career coach advised Beane to focus on what he knows best, “She’s like, ‘you have to leave that. You have to focus on what you are passionate about. You like people and being around them.,’” Beane said. So, he left.

Soon after, Beane transitioned from working as an associate to being an executive at Johnson Controls, a large company. In his new role, Beane was responsible for strategic planning and needed to understand all aspects of the business. Although Beane had little experience in his new role, he did have legal, business, and financial experience — all skills that assisted Beane in carrying out his job. Beane worked in that role for about two and a half years, later transitioning into continuous improvement six sigma, a position that entailed efficiency and process. However, Beane and his wife decided to move back to New York, and he desired a new role. Beane found an interest that would ultimately lead to his passion, issues around diversity.

Again, approaching a job field with little experience, but an incredible set of tools — Beane pursued solving challenges of persons from underrepresented groups in the business field. Beane applied to Time Warner (now Warner Media) to become head of diversity.

Going into the interview Beane took a risk and pitched himself, citing his strong financial, strategic, and legal background. He got the job.

“I said I have zero experience in the space, but I have passion,” Beane said. “Back when I took this job, nobody wanted to go into diversity. That was a dead-end job. You would be pigeonholed. The pay wasn’t as good, so forth and so on, but I really wanted to do it. I had a passion for it, and I wanted to make a change and that is how I got into the space.”

Beane never looked back.  

Wanting to make a difference — using passion and desire — in the corporate world is what drove Beane to working in DEI. However, Beane had no idea that DEI would become as big as it has become today.

“I was hoping, it was that big to me already,” Beane said. “In order for an organization to optimize its performance, you have to be able to connect with your employees in a way where they are able to be there best selves at work. For me, I was just connecting the dots and I said ‘I would love to be a part of this. I want to do this.’ That is what drove me. My passion and interest. Not because I saw an opportunity and said, ‘oh let me get in there because this was going to blow up.’ I had no idea; I had no idea.”

Beane continued navigating the corporate world, later working as the head of DEI at Novartis, a health care company, and 21st Century Fox, a media company. This culmination of experiences that led Beane to where he is today, working as Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the NFL.

The NFL poses unique difficulties in comparison to other organizations. The NFL is not only a sports organization, but it is also a media organization. Beane’s credo — developed as a kid growing up in North Carolina, through his education at multiple universities, to his assorted work experiences in different companies— prepared him for this role.

“We have NFL Films, we have NFL Network, we create a lot of internal programming and content that we then also share externally, and we have the football games,” Bean said. “We produce a lot of content.”

Beane pulls his experience from working in media, consulting, and manufacturing companies to assist him with each aspect of his current role. Media helps with the content side; consulting helps with the business side; and manufacturing taught Beane how to operate. Beane firmly believes that operationalizing DEI is what makes his strategy work.

“What makes me a good practitioner and what makes me different is I learned how to operationalize this work,” Beane said. “How to be strategic, how to focus on process, how to drive accountability and how to use metrics.”

Not only is there a challenge with the NFL’s multiple content sources, but there is also a challenge with the NFL’s structure itself. The NFL is one entity, then there are 32 entities within the NFL.  Each team has its own separate business, run differently. Each team agrees to be aligned under the same strategy, whether it be branding, running the game, to DEI, and more. Beane needed to create a replicable program for teams to follow — to uproot the previous DEI ideologies.

“We didn’t have a strategic plan around diversity equity and inclusion,” Beane said. “When I got there, I formed a DEI strategic plan. . . There was no accountability with senior leadership. So, every one of our senior leaders and our executive vice presidents have their own DEI strategic plan that is customized to their particular business that they are responsible for doing and their compensation is impacted based off of their successful execution of that work. We also needed to make sure we were driving diversity strategy at the club, so all 32 clubs have their own plan as well.”

Beane ensures each team’s strategy is individualized. Beane and his task force of five employees collect data to analyze and inform the clubs what needs to be worked on and what is being done well. There is a diversity report for each team, executive vice president, and League office. Beane’s focus is on ensuring the NFL is reaching out to diverse groups such as Latinx, Black, Asian, women, and the youth. The thorough strategy comes with challenges. One of Beane’s biggest obstacles is time — it is difficult to work with every team routinely and he is challenged with finding ways to stay connect with each of them. Beane works with teams both collectively and individually — and the teams welcome it. Each team wants to stay aligned with what the League is doing and Beane leverages that to drive DEI work.

The ultimate goal with DEI is to create a lasting foundation in the NFL.

“When we have employees who can seamlessly talk about diversity and inclusion and equity and how it applies to the betterment of the League without me being around, that’s success,” Beane said. “That is what success is, that is what we measure, that is what our strategy is and that is who we want to be.”

Moreover, beyond overhauling the NFL’s DEI initiatives from a macro level, Beane works with League and team issues at a micro level. In an organization with thousands of employees — composed of athletes, coaches, team staff, stadium staff, League staff, League executives, etc., there inevitably will be issues with DEI. These issues often take place through work misconduct such as sexual harassment, or racial incidents. Beane must approach each and every situation with the utmost care and with a new set of eyes. Every person’s experience is different, and it is integral to treat every occurrence fairly and justly.

“The big thing is, we don’t want to be a place that anything that someone does, that we are going to come down on them hard,” Beane said. “This is one of learning, one of grace, and understanding — that we are all not perfect. So, you have to balance that.”

However, when there is a seriously bad actor, the League has clear expectations. For anyone who is responsible for an act beyond a certain threshold, grace can no longer be given. The opportunity for understanding is lost. Acts such as sexual assault, racial misconduct, or extremely serious offenses must be dealt with swiftly — ensuring people committing these types of acts are no longer a part of the League. Removing bad actors is imperative to the NFL’s and Beane’s efforts to optimize DEI.

“We have to make sure we have the right policies and practices to ensure those types of instances don’t happen,” Beane said. “When there are really bad instances, it is best for us to move the person or individuals out of the organization and stay focused on ensuring that we have standards, and we will not change . . . We are going to say that everyone has the right to be respected and feel safe and have a sense of belonging. . . Whenever there is a behavior that contradicts that, we have to seriously look at it.”

The work that Beane has accomplished thus far in major corporations around the U.S. is immense. Beane is structurally changing the way an entire sports league views and participates in DEI — all through passion. Yet, it makes one think even further. Beane’s passion to make the  League and society as whole more compassionate can be rooted back to a lesson he learned since he could talk: service. 

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3rd year law student and Co-President of the Buffalo Sports ands Entertainment Law Society. I enjoy writing and learning more about the intersection of business, sports, entertainment and law.

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