General Counsel of 49ers Opens Doors for Women in the NFL

Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

Hannah Gordon is Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel of the San Francisco 49ers. She is one of the women using her role to create change in the NFL.

Top-level executive positions in the National Football League have been dominated by men for many years. This trend rings true for most other major sports organizations, as well. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics issues an annual report card for different companies based on their diversity characteristics. In its 2020 report card, it gave the NFL a grade of C for gender hiring. When it came to CEO, president, and top executive positions, the NFL received a grade of F for gender hiring.

Helping Women Rise Through the Ranks

Gordon’s position as Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel includes broad responsibilities. The legal side interfaces with the business side in a multitude of ways. Her role not only involves contracts and legal issues, but includes marketing, the stadium, and the football team. In addition to her core responsibilities, she is helping other women rise through the ranks of professional football.

“The biggest challenge is that you need to get more people like you into the room,” Gordon said. “This is a weight that those of us who are different in some way often bear. We feel a sense of responsibility to not be the only one.”

General Counsel Loves Sports

Gordon had a keen interest in sports growing up. She fell in love with football in high school but attended her first live football game in college. As an undergraduate student at UCLA, she became the first of the women football writers for The Daily Bruin. She also interned at the NFL Players Association and worked as a law clerk for the Oakland Raiders.

Women General Counsel
Photo bu Keith Johnston on yh

After graduating from Stanford Law School, Gordon decided to merge her legal interests with the sports world. Her first roles with the 49ers involved legal and public affairs, risk management, community engagement, and strategic communications. She, like other women, worked her way up the corporate ladder. She focused on her bigger goals even in the face of challenging situations. For example, she recounts how she managed to deal with an individual at the league office who strongly disliked her. Instead of wondering “What is wrong with me?”, Gordon reframed her perspective to: “What is wrong with the situation?”

A Book About Change for Women

In her book titled “SZN of Change,” Gordon details her experience rising to a top-level executive position in the sports world. She hopes her story will serve as inspiration to others. In terms of Gordon’s future aspirations, she intends to keep advancing. While her current focus is on being a General Counsel, she hopes to someday land a president or CEO position.

Gordon has worked with her colleagues on a number of initiatives to increase diversity at the 49ers and in the leadership ranks of the NFL more broadly. The 49ers’ Denise DeBartolo York Fellowship is awarded to a female college graduate every year to provide them with the opportunity to partake in a one-year internship at the 49ers.

Opening the Door

“My goal is to open the door for anyone for whom the door is closed, whether it’s on the basis of gender or race or sexual orientation or national origin or language,” Gordon stated. “I think that the world is a much richer place when we all get to be who we are and when we all have a seat at the table.”

The NFL also observes the Rooney Rule, which commits them to interviewing female and minority candidates for every full-time business position. The Rooney Rule is an interviewing quota, but not a hiring quota or hiring preference.

Gordon cites having good mentors as key in her career path. While both male and female mentors are valuable, Gordon states that the lack of visibility of women in NFL leadership positions can deter other women from considering those positions. She recalls in college not even considering working at the top levels of the NFL simply because she did not see any female role models in those positions.

General Counsel as Mentor

Today, Gordon serves as a mentor to many young women in the league through both formal and informal programs. Having more women in the leadership ranks of the NFL will pave the way for the younger generation.

“When I look at what needs to change in sports, it’s the same things that need to change in finance, the same things we need to change in tech, the same things we need to change in the law,” Gordon stated. “When I look at sports, for me, it’s really how do we make all of society better and how can we be an example for that?”