by Sue Tomchin
Anna Isaacson’s first job in sports was working part-time as a college student selling souvenirs near the old Yankee stadium.
Less than two decades later, as senior vice president of social responsibility at the National Football League, she played a pivotal role in developing the NFL’s programmatic response to a series of domestic violence incidents in 2014. The NFL’s crisis began after former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice was caught on video punching his then fiancée.
At the time, Isaacson had already been at the NFL for eight years. As the vice president of community relations and philanthropy she had deftly managed such initiatives as the league’s breast cancer awareness and childhood obesity education programs. But as the crisis growing out of the league’s handling of the Rice incident escalated, she was called upon to review the NFL’s personal conduct policy in the areas of domestic, sexual and child abuse.
On September 15, 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced her appointment to a newly created position as vice president for social responsibility. In his formal memorandum, he tasked her with overseeing “the development of the full range of education, training and support programs relating to domestic violence, sexual assault, and matters of respect.” Working with her would be three experts in the field, including 2015 JWI Woman to Watch, Jane Randel, founder of NO MORE, a coalition dedicated to getting the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault and abuse out of the shadows.
“It was a whirlwind for the first couple of months until we found our path forward,” Isaacson says of the period when the NFL was in the hot seat for its handling of domestic abuse.
"[The NFL] wanted to take this moment when we were being challenged, take responsibility for where we made mistakes and then
try to make a difference..."
She joined Goodell in meetings across the country with 150 experts in the domestic violence field. “We were out listening to people, hearing thoughts and ideas, getting feedback and, frankly, getting yelled at, and taking it in and deciding what to do and how to do it,” she says. “We wanted to take this moment when we were being challenged, take responsibility for where we made mistakes and then try to make a difference for the rest of the country,” she says.
Today, Isaacson is proud that the NFL is in the fourth year of its social responsibility education series for “every member of the NFL family” and has partnerships with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The NFL also sponsors a digital character education program teaching middle school students “about healthy relationships, communication, respect for themselves and respect for others,” and a program for high school coaches.
Isaacson says that “being a good listener and emotionally aware came in handy when working on such an emotionally troubling topic.” She believes her evident “passion for making a difference,” and ability to deal honestly and authentically enabled her to build trust with the many groups with whom she had to work.
She has observed that attention to gender has increased markedly at the NFL since the Ray Rice crisis. Women’s presence has grown through new hires in all areas of operation, including on the football side. “I can be in a meeting now where there are no men present,” she says, but notes that at the senior levels, there is “still room for growth.”
Isaacson serves on the committee that planned the women’s summit taking place for the past two years before the Super Bowl, and is co-chair of the NFL Diversity Council. She also played a key role in the development of WIN, the Women’s Interactive Network, a forum where NFL staff members come together to talk about gender issues.
Flexible work arrangements and how to make things better for working moms and working families comes up often in these discussions. Isaacson knows from personal experience the importance of having access to flexibility: she and her husband, David Kovacevic, an orthopedic surgeon, have a nearly two-year-old toddler, Theo, and she is able to work at home one day a week.
Growing up in Brooklyn, the daughter of a teacher and a family business owner, Isaacson followed in her mother’s footsteps and became an avid baseball fan. By the time she was in high school, she aspired to a career in sports, but wasn’t sure what aspect to pursue. Just out of college, she was hired part-time by the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league baseball team, to run a mall souvenir booth. When the team opened a museum, she used her Barnard history degree to develop exhibits and community programming. That experience pointed her toward community relations, at the time a relatively new field in sports. She subsequently applied to the NFL in this area and was hired.
“I think that it’s important for young people starting out to know that their career may take different twists and turns,” she says of her experiences. “You can’t always know what’s going to happen, but keep working at it and challenging yourself and looking for the next opportunity.”