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Kavitha A. Davidson: Women at the NFL’s big-boy table

Kavitha A. Davidson: Women at the NFL’s big-boy table

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The National Football League is actually heeding the call to involve more women in its decision-making, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not still going about business as usual.

With much fanfare, the NFL promoted Anna Isaacson, one of its few female executives, to the new role of vice president of social responsibility, as part of its effort to address its institutional failure on domestic violence cases. The league has also brought on three other women as senior advisers — Lisa Friel, Jane Randel and Rita Smith.

Friel, Randel and Smith all have extensive experience in combating domestic abuse; Issacson previously served as head of the NFL’s community affairs office, where she worked on various social issues including partner violence. Bleacher Report’s Michael Schottey, who interviewed her for an article on football and the military, characterizes Issacson as “very serious about the NFL’s role as force for good.”

Isaacson should certainly be commended for establishing her place in a decidedly male-dominated world. But early indications also give us little reason to be hopeful that the league’s new cadre of powerful women will usher in an era of straight talk. Last week, Isaacson gave her first interview since her promotion, an “exclusive” chat with USA Today’s Christine Brennan. In it, she did little but reiterate the NFL’s usual talking points through platitudes and pledges. Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz said it all in her headline, “NFL Issues Press Release Through USA Today On How Hard It’s Working.”

In addition to promising to put “110 percent” into enacting change and reaffirming the league’s commitment to “getting this right” — a favorite refrain of everybody who’s been involved in this saga, from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf– Isaacson took care to note that the league’s seemingly new-found enthusiasm for a comprehensive approach to domestic violence isn’t just the product of sustained external pressure. “I think the good news is that we have cared about these issues for many years,” Isaacson said. “We know we don’t have all the answers. We are bringing in the right people to guide us, to help us make decisions that move this issue forward.”

Moving forward was also a theme in Isaacson’s interview on Tuesday with Mike Golic and Ryan Ruocco on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike.” “We’re committed to doing this right, and we’re being thoughtful in our approach and our actions,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for many years,” she repeated, noting the player development program’s educational component.

When asked what more can be done, she answered, “We’re taking a good look at that.” When pressed further on specific steps that can be taken now that she has this expanded role, she contended, “We already had a framework in place. It just gave us the go-ahead to really move forward and know that we have the commitment of the commissioner behind us.” She concluded: “We need to get to work.”

Sound familiar? A vague promise for fixing the future; a reminder of an alternate past in which the NFL has always cared about domestic violence; some choice sound bites signaling reform; and a hearty acknowledgment of Goodell. Frank Luntz would be proud.

It’s early, so let’s give Isaacson some room to grow and hope that we can eventually get some straight talk out of her. But for now, let’s turn our attention to another female hire that flew much more under the radar, but could have a far bigger and more immediate impact on the league.

On Monday, the NFL hired former Pepsi executive Dawn Hudson as its new chief marketing officer. Hudson has had a very successful career: She spent 11 years at Pepsi, one of the league’s closest sponsors, where she rose to president and chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola North America.

Like Isaacson, Hudson is an immensely qualified person who happens to be a woman, giving the NFL some much-needed female authority as it tries to rebuild its image with fans and sponsors. The distressing thing, however, is that it reinforces the well-founded suspicion that the NFL only undergoes real change when forced to by its marketing partners, who have certainly not been pleased by the Ray Rice fiasco.

Hiring a woman could go a long way to smoothing over those relationships. On the plus side: It also means Goodell will finally have to start listening to at least one female perspective, as Hudson will become the first woman to report directly to the commissioner.

The NFL can only benefit from having more women at the “big-boy table,” as Fox Sports’s Katie Nolan put it. Isaacson and Hudson are a good start, but it’s up to them to prove us skeptics wrong by changing the NFL from within.

Kavitha A. Davidson writes for Bloomberg News. 

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