The Kansas City Star came out with a story that paints a provocative, troubling picture of life in the Chiefs offices under Scott Pioli. To ensure no one would notice, they published it on Saturday night. But we're more than happy to dive in to the tales of a workplace gone mad with paranoia and secrecy—a place where Todd Haley is convinced his personal cell phone is being tapped, and comes off as a sympathetic figure. Think Airstrip One, just off I-70.
It all started when Pioli was hired away from the Patriots in 2009, after a decade of success and a major role in the Spygate scandal in New England. It had only been three years since Lamar Hunt's death, and the Chiefs were trying to chance the culture of the place. That meant splitting up the duties of business operations and football operations, and that wasn't what Scott Pioli wanted. If he was going to take the Chiefs job, he would insist on total control. In the end, he received it.
It's an intriguing footnote that Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh, the whistleblower of Spygate, was officially fired for "secretly tape-recording conversations." Because if several current and former Chiefs employees are to be believed, Pioli and upper management have been monitoring their conversations, seeing who was loyal to the cause and who was an enemy of the party.
In early December, Haley apparently reached out to a reporter with his suspicions. But explaining what he knew, what he thought, and what he believed was going on at One Arrowhead Drive presented a unique set of challenges. He stepped into a PR office to make a call, before glancing at the ceiling. Bugged? He backed out into a little-used hallway, but was anywhere safe? His cellphone was out of the question; he was convinced that his line was tapped. He told the reporter he would call him back, but from an unrecognized number—a new phone, that they couldn't possibly have gotten to. The call never came. Four days later, Haley was fired.
Over the past year, Haley had stopped using his office phone. He had repeatedly searched his office for listening devices. He knew for a fact that Pioli and Chiefs management had the ability to listen in on employees, and the willingness to use those conversations against them.
"The capability was definitely there for Big Brother to be watching," said [former stadium operations director Steve] Schneider, whose job was to oversee maintenance at team facilities.
Added Pete Penland, who worked in operations before retiring: "I just know that some of our bosses had always told us: Be careful what we did, what we said and where we were at in certain parts of the building."
[Chiefs president Mark] Donovan denied that conversations are monitored or that the building is bugged. He said that in cases of suspected policy breaches or criminal activity, phone logs have been requested.
"I'm not going to say that we've never done it, but it's not something we do," Donovan said. "It's not how we operate this business."
But in the last three years, another former staffer said, printouts of emails, some of them months old, were occasionally requested. The former employee said the belief was that the Chiefs were trying to discover who could be trusted and who couldn't, who was loyal to the cause and who was a liability. Pioli pored over former president Denny Thum's call log, a former high-ranking employee said, before Thum was asked to resign in September 2010 after 36 years with the team.
The culture of secrecy was universal. Certain floors of the facility where deemed off-limits for employees. Offices with windows facing the practice field had to have the shades pulled, and if not, there was a security guard making the rounds to enforce it. A driver, on a public road running past the stadium, was chased down and accosted by a guard after snapping a cell-phone photo.
Meanwhile, a litany of anecdotes speak to Scott Pioli's petty dictatorship. A former executive was reprimanded to human resources for casually calling Pioli by just his last name. Pioli was livid and threatened another employee's job after she parked a courier van in his parking spot. Pioli angrily confronted department heads during a meeting about a candy bar wrapper left in a back stairwell a week before.
Since taking over in early 2009, Pioli has cleaned house. Of the 155 staffers listed in that year's media guide, 82 are no longer with the team. For some of those former employees, it's come to lawsuits. Three have filed age discrimination suits against the team. Brenda Sniezek, the former community-relations director, alleges that she overheard Pioli say he planned to "get rid of everyone who was with Carl Peterson, especially anyone over the age of 40."
More important than age was whether you were "Pioli's guy."
"I just saw everybody else kind of disappearing," said a former executive who had been hired by Peterson. "When you're on the outside, it's pretty obvious you're on the outside."
Clark Hunt, the Chiefs' owner and chairman and proud graduate of the Goldman Sachs training program, loves the top-down approach to management.
"I believe that good leaders do bring an attention to detail to their leadership roles," he said. "And something that I think we struggled with before both Mark and Scott got here was attention to detail. If you set an example with attention to detail, I think it spreads through the organization."
[Former operations staffer Stephanie] Melton had a different opinion, saying Pioli's fixation on trivial matters seemed misguided.
"He was so focused on what seemed like unimportant details for the general manager of a football team," she said. "We all had to step to the beat of his drum, but we all kept questioning: ‘How is this building a better football team?' "
After qualifying for the playoffs last year, the Chiefs put up their second losing record in three seasons under Pioli. Attention to detail can go hand-in-hand with winning football, as Scott Pioli saw in New England. But he may not have absorbed the lesson that correlation does not equal causation, that being a royal ass of a boss will not necessarily lead into wins. It appears he was bequeathed none of Bill Belichick's football judgment and all of his paranoia, and because of it, the Chiefs aren't just losers. They're miserable losers.
Arrowhead anxiety: Turnover off the field causes concern [Kansas City Star]