Award-winning NFL executive and media personality Scott Pioli recently spoke to KO students at our Lunch and Lead series, part of the school’s Margaret E. and Henry R. Roberts Center for Leadership. Lunch and Lead events provide informal opportunities for students to learn about the journeys of alumni leaders and other executives from a variety of fields so that students can better understand themselves and their community as they grow as principled-centered leaders.
Highlights of Pioli’s 27-year career in the NFL include five trips to the Super Bowl, three Super Bowl championships, four AFC championships, one NFC Championship, and nine Division Tiles. He’s worked in a variety of positions as general manager, assistant general manager, and vice president personnel at the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Falcons. He is also the founding chair of The John Lewis Institute for Social Justice at Central Connecticut State University, aimed at empowering a new generation of leaders working to understand the roots of inequality and impact real change.
Pioli, a self-described “misguided knucklehead in high school” who played football and continued his football career at Connecticut College State University, always dreamed of playing in the NFL and winning a Super Bowl ring. While he became a stronger player in college, he resented when people would say to him that his playing football was not going to last forever. “I thought there was a way to make it but wasn’t sure - maybe as a football coach or coach and history teacher in high school. I knew that my life’s passion was football. If I could be around football for my life. I could be happy - not for the sizzle or the trophies but for the love of the game, the family, and community of football,” he said.
Pioli was 27 when he secured his first job at the Cleveland Browns and recognized he was very privileged to continue a sports career. This has inspired him to pay it forward. “A lot of opportunities came my way because I am a white male. I worked hard but I got opportunities because of the way I look,” he said. He recollected that his older sisters, who were superior athletes and students than him, were excluded from advantages that were afforded to him because they were student-athletes prior to the passage of Title 9. That civil rights law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that receives federal money. “My sisters were not able to dream about the opportunities that I was able to dream about,” he said. "I was very fortunate, very blessed, and part of the privilege that I was born with I now use to help people,” he said. He was instrumental in helping National Football League coach Katie Sowers get her job because she was his daughter’s basketball coach. “She just needed an opportunity,” he said.
One of the most difficult aspects of Pioli's job is managing people whose goals and values and not aligned with his own. “My values are always based on the greater good for a team and organizational success so everyone can benefit. But, that isn’t always everybody’s motive,” he said. Another challenge for Pioli is cutting people from the team since his decision not only impacts the player but their spouse and family, too.
Standing on the podium with Tom Brady and Robert Kraft while winning the Patriot’s third Super Bowl ring in 2005 was a defining moment in Pioli's career. But, Pioli said, it was not in the manner one would think. Brady grabbed his face as the confetti streamed down and shouted,” Isn’t this great!” Instead of basking in the glow of victory, Pioli thought “What next?” “What are we working for? It reminded me that my personal goals are cool but what was I going to do with that moment? I was thinking about legacy...what am I going to use this platform for? We all have different platforms and opportunities to do things. This wasn’t about me but about some greater good and bringing messaging to people,” he said.
Pioli uses his platform to work in the equity and inclusion space. He challenged the students to look beyond their individual differences, stop judging one another, and discover the “why” behind other people’s circumstances, choices, and behaviors. “Be empathetic. Be vulnerable.”
"Every morning I wake up and pray that I’m going to do the right thing. But my implicit bias that I grew up with makes me think dumb things sometimes or makes me react in ways that I’m not proud of. In doing this work, one of the greatest hurdles we face, including the people in the marginalized groups, is our implicit bias. When we say something, we may be attacked. We’re not always going to get the return of grace from other people. And that keeps us from acting in the right way. It’s not an excuse. It’s a reality. Even the best people who try to do the right thing make mistakes. Sometimes you are the victim and sometimes you are victimizing other people. Sometimes you have to stand back. We have to extend more grace after the attack.”