The troubling Arizona Cardinals workplace culture that had some employees ‘working in fear’

One day in 2019, Arizona Cardinals employees arrived at the team’s headquarters in Tempe, made their way to their offices or cubicles on the second or third floors, opened up their emails and found . . . An employee survey.

At most workplaces, this would be a decidedly ordinary part of the grind. But in Cardinals’ offices, the survey was monumental. Some who received it filled unglamorous, back-office jobs in finance, marketing, community relations or business development departments and had never felt like their opinions about the operation were valued. Further, many had negative feelings about the workplace but had been reluctant to share them because they felt replaceable — if they didn’t value the privilege of working for an NFL team, someone else would. 

The team, owned by the Bidwill family for nine decades, didn’t have a dedicated director of human resources at the time. Some employees wondered if they could trust that their survey answers would stay anonymous. 

Despite their fears, some employees wrote about unpleasant encounters with team owner Michael Bidwill and unwritten rules they dare not break in his presence. Many female employees addressed a variety of issues that made some of them feel like second-class citizens inside the building. After finishing the survey, some employees shared what they’d written with each other and realized how critical the results would be of the team’s culture and leaders.

“People tore Michael Bidwill to shreds,” said a former employee with more than five years of experience with the team.

In the following weeks, many Cardinals staffers awaited the fallout. “Everyone was wondering, what’s happening with the survey? Are we going to find out the results of the survey?” said one former employee.

But weeks became months, then a year. The survey was briefly mentioned in an email about gym memberships, but otherwise, many staffers concluded:

“It disappeared into thin air.”

The Athletic spoke to more than a dozen current and former employees with 100-plus combined years of experience with the team, most on the non-football side of the organization. All were granted anonymity out of their fear of retaliation from Bidwill, an attorney and former federal prosecutor.

Those who spoke to The Athletic detailed how Bidwill would sometimes react strongly to what they considered minor transgressions – like a squeaky wheel on an office cart or a woman laughing too loudly in the office – contributing to a culture where many employees felt constantly on edge. That culture was referenced in a letter outgoing COO Ron Minegar delivered to Bidwill in December 2019 – “a majority of our employees are working in fear,” Minegar wrote. 

Former employees also described unwritten policies about how women were to dress, interact with male football staffers and players, and where they could and couldn’t go in the building. Those policies forced them to operate in an environment that, as one framed it, was “outdated, archaic, constricted.” They also described how the lack of a robust human resources department made it difficult to know where to take complaints, such as nursing mothers having to pump near a shower area or in a conference room. 

“You would think being an entertainment sports team that it would be a fun place to work. No, not at all,” said one employee.

In response to the allegations detailed in this story, Bidwill issued a statement that read: “As I have said personally to every member of the Cardinals organization, I certainly have room to grow and with the benefit of hindsight, would have done some things differently over the years. I also know that my direct approach doesn’t always land well, and I’m working on that. I have always been driven by the desire to learn and improve and more importantly, to use those lessons in building the best organization possible. Over the last several years, we have taken significant steps to improve our culture and build a stronger community. We are a better and more inclusive organization today than we were yesterday and I’m extremely excited about what we can be tomorrow.”

The Cardinals went 4-13 in 2022, lost franchise quarterback Kyler Murray to injury after a contentious contract negotiation, parted ways with their head coach and GM, then committed a tampering violation in the process of hiring a new coach.

Weeks before the 2023 draft, former Cardinals executive Terry McDonough, who worked for the team from 2013 to 2023 accused Michael Bidwill of organizing a scheme involving “burner phones” to circumvent the NFL’s no-contact stipulation of then-general manager Steve Keim’s DUI suspension in 2018. The Cardinals acknowledged the existence of the burner phone plan but blamed it on an unnamed executive. “Mr. Bidwill took swift action when he learned of that situation and directed the phones be retrieved and communications stopped,” a PR advisor hired by the team said in a statement.


Cardinals exec alleges retaliation by team owner

Worth an estimated $3.8 billion according to Forbes, the Cardinals employ a pared-down corporate structure in contrast with other franchises and employ approximately 140 people on the non-football side of the operation. When Bidwill, 58, assumed the role of principal owner following the death of his 88-year-old father, Bill, in 2019, he didn’t hire a team president (his previous role) and left the position of chief operating officer vacant for more than three years before filling it in August.

That structure, some former and current employees said, contributed to the creation of a top-down culture in which Bidwill sometimes hovered over minor tasks and reacted strongly to the smallest of grievances.

Just after being hired, one employee said a supervisor told her she would be an “official Cardinal” once she got yelled at by Bidwill or another senior manager. “Like 20 minutes after that, Michael Bidwill yelled at me,” she said. Her offense? She was walking too slowly. 

Bidwill’s office was in the center of the second floor, and some staffers hesitated to go near there — one former employee called it “tiptoe alley.” If the team lost the previous weekend, or if Bidwill had already yelled at someone that day, word would quietly spread: Don’t go down the hall today, Michael’s mad.

“There’s a lot of cubicles outside of his main office, and you can’t really speak normally most of the time,” said a former employee. “Like you have to peek and see: Is Michael in here today? Can you act normal? Can you not? It was so unpredictable. Sometimes he is in a good mood, sometimes he’s not.”

Avoiding Bidwill’s wrath was made more difficult because he sometimes involved himself in minor or mundane workplace tasks. One former employee said he became upset when a new hire’s cell phone number was assigned the 480 area code used in the Phoenix suburbs instead of the 602 area code for the city center. Another time, after a department opted to turn off the fluorescent lights above their cubicles in favor of softer lighting, one employee said Bidwill flipped the fluorescent lights back and announced: “Here we work with the lights on!” 

In August 2019, after then-COO Minegar was arrested for extreme DUI, Bidwill scolded Minegar during a Mothers Against Drunk Driving presentation in the team auditorium. Several employees in the audience remember Bidwill telling Minegar: “I wanted to fire your ass.”

“He said, ‘Don’t f—ing do it again,’” a former employee present that day said. “Who is he cursing at like that? We aren’t children.”

Some Cardinals staffers looking to raise concerns about the workplace said they didn’t know where to turn. There was no dedicated HR director from 2008 until 2021 and no fully-staffed HR department until 2022. And some employees worried if they raised concerns they’d be quickly let go. 

“We likened it to Broadway lights,” said one former employee. “It’s all bright and shiny, and if one bulb goes out, they’ll just throw it away, pop in another one.”

Added another employee: “People just didn’t say anything. They complain under their breath, and they go into their car at lunch and they cry.”

A few weeks before Minegar left his job in January 2020, ending a two-decade run with the franchise, he delivered a three-page letter to Bidwill that referenced the employment survey.

“We learned that a majority of our employees are working in fear,” Minegar wrote to Bidwill in the letter, which was first reported on by Pro Football Talk. “There are several factors, but much of this was directed at you based on the poor interaction they’ve had with you. What was your reaction when you saw the preliminary responses? Instead of leaning into it and trying to change things for the better, you shut the study down.”

A demand for arbitration Terry McDonough made to the NFL in April also addressed the survey: Bidwill’s workplace misconduct is so pervasive and toxic, that he halted a 2019 corporate cultural assessment of the Cardinals organization that was being conducted by an outside consulting firm after an expansive initial round of employee responses criticized the Cardinals’ woeful culture and placed most of the blame on Bidwill.

A team spokesperson responded: “The 2019 survey was not ignored. In fact, significant action was taken based on its feedback, the most prominent of which was the creation of the Chief People Officer role. Some changes were immediate, like the employee wellness initiatives announced in February of 2020, just weeks before COVID shut down the country. Others took longer as a result of the pandemic.”

Along a second-floor hallway of the Cardinals offices, there’s a white plastic wall. Employees who spoke to The Athletic weren’t sure exactly when the wall went up (at some point during Bruce Arians’ coaching tenure from 2013-17), but they believe they know why it was erected. 

That area of the second floor was occupied by a group of predominantly female employees. Some of those women, like others in the office, came to understand that Bidwill and others did not want them fraternizing with the male members of Arians’ coaching staff and players. No sources said they received that directive straight from Bidwill, but multiple women said supervisors or others conveyed to them that any contact with the football staff and players was frowned upon.

But coaches or players, perhaps unaware of this unwritten rule, often made small talk with the female employees as they walked down the second-floor hall. One day, a coach stopped to chat for longer than usual. Shortly thereafter, one employee said, a director told her they’d be putting up a wall to “cut down on hallway traffic.” Later, employees arrived to find the wall: a seven- or eight-foot-tall extension of two cubicle walls, tall enough that passersby couldn’t see the people working behind it. 

The wall ordeal contributed to a feeling some women had that they were constantly under watch, and that feeling made some modify their behavior.

One former employee said she had to take a roundabout route to the women’s bathroom because the most direct path took her past the coaches’ offices. Once, at a golf event, a player offered her a cart ride to the next hole. She eventually took it, but not before asking herself if a supervisor might punish her for it. 

Another former employee said a player took the seat next to her during a flight to a road game and engaged in a long conversation, something the player had done before with several of her male colleagues. Afterward, she said, a male coworker approached her and told her it wasn’t a good look to be talking to the player.

“It was a very old-school mentality that you’re always fighting against,” she said. “There were a lot of things that were just gray areas or rules that weren’t really ever set in stone or in a book, but just like, this is the way it is.” 

Until early 2020, male office employees could use the team’s weight room whenever players weren’t present, but four women who spoke to The Athletic said they were either told directly by a supervisor or made to feel as if they weren’t allowed to use it and were discouraged from even using the staircase that led there, “for fear we might end up in the locker room,” one former employee said. The team eventually closed off the weight room to all non-football staff and offered employees discounted memberships to a local gym.

Female media members from outside the organization were permitted to enter the team’s locker room during open periods in accordance with NFL rules. But up until the 2022 season, female members of the Cardinals’ staff, including those who worked for the team’s in-house media operation, could not go in. Those in-house media members had to wait for players to be brought to them outside the locker room. A Cardinals spokesperson said the team intended to change that policy in 2020, but that COVID restrictions meant the locker room was closed to all media in 2020 and 2021.

“It felt like I was walking on eggshells,” one former employee said. “Am I okay to be here? Oh my God, what if someone sees me here? You’re just doing your job and trying to walk around the building in which you work and feeling like, ‘Oh, I can’t be on this side.’”

Up until at least 2020, some nursing mothers had to pump in an area adjacent to the showers in the women’s locker room. Others hunted for empty conference rooms to use. 

Several women described an unwritten dress code for female employees in which women wearing leggings or shorts or skirts had to tie a sweatshirt or jacket around their waists if they were going to work on the field or be near players or football staff. They couldn’t show their shoulders and understood they needed to cover up so they weren’t distractions. One woman said she felt a responsibility to inform new female employees about the dress code, even though she felt uncomfortable passing along what she thought was a sexist restriction.

Shaun Mayo, the Chief People Officer hired in July 2021, responded in a statement: “These ‘unwritten rules’ are largely urban myths and old news. They were unknown to senior leaders until we received employee feedback from the 2019 survey. In most, if not all cases, they were based on perception – or misperception – rather than any actual policy. But the feedback was valuable. We’ve addressed them over the last several years and now have clarity across the organization.”

Mayo was not the first person to fill the role of Chief People Officer. 

In February 2021, the Cardinals sent out a press release touting the hiring of Kelly Jones for that role. Many Cardinals staffers were excited about his arrival. Maybe with a robust HR department, the workplace would operate less like a mom-and-pop shop and more like a multi-billion-dollar company. 

But Jones exited after just a couple of months on the job, and no explanation was given for his exit.

“That’s quite common in that building,” said the former employee with more than a decade of experience. “You don’t know people are gone until you start asking where they are.” 

Jones declined to comment about his time at the Cardinals, telling The Athletic he wanted “to keep that part of my career in the rearview.” His tenure with the team is not listed on his LinkedIn profile. 

A few months later, the Cardinals hired Mayo, who reports directly to Bidwill. Soon after, Mayo organized small-group listening sessions, a dedicated time and space for employees to meet him and air their grievances. Recently, the team held another round of listening sessions, hired an independent consulting firm to conduct its own workplace review and organized a pay review study to make sure employees were compensated on par with other teams. The organization also relaxed its work-from-home policies, instituted shorter hours for summer Fridays and brought in food trucks. The Cardinals hosted an open house at the facility for employees’ families, and handed out plaques to some employees recognizing their years of service. The team also arranged for the office staff to travel to this weekend’s game in Los Angeles versus the Rams, a new perk. 

In 2022, the team renovated an unused office into a space for nursing mothers.

When McDonough’s allegations made headlines in April, the Cardinals held an emergency all-staff meeting to reassure employees. Later that month, every employee received invitations from Mayo and Tina Givens, senior director of people operations, to attend another listening session. 

The April listening sessions took place in the executive conference room in the center of the second floor. The shades were lowered, but the location was public — anyone in the office could see who was coming and going. In at least one case, the session ended before the employees were done sharing their concerns. 

Sixty minutes wasn’t enough time.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)