My journey into football really started with watching Hannah Storm host the NBA playoffs. Growing up in Oakland I’d always been a huge sports fan, so seeing a woman lead coverage of a huge sporting event captivated me. At University of California, Los Angeles I became the first woman ever to cover football for [UCLA newspaper] the Daily Bruin. Covering football led me into internships at the Oakland Raiders and the NFL Players Association, and from there into media relations.
When I later went to law school, I knew wanted to keep my focus on sports, and in my early years as a lawyer [at Latham & Watkins’ San Francisco and New York offices] I worked primarily on player contracts and collective bargaining in the NFL. I was recruited to the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, right as the lockout was ending, and we were entering what was the last collective bargaining agreement. That was really a thrill for me, because I was from the Bay Area and it was a wonderful opportunity to go into a newly-created role where I would build out a day to day legal affairs practice there.
A universal language
One of the great things about sport is that it offers a microcosm of society. Football appeals to all ages, races and sexual orientations. The NFL fan base is more or less split 50:50 between men and women, offering a true reflection of the country. As a team we have season ticket holders from almost every state in the United States, and fans from all over the world. When it comes to D&I, that gives us a great power to help influence things and show how sport can be a positive catalyst for social change.
In my role as chief administrative officer, I have been at the forefront of the Niners’ community philanthropy, public affairs, and fan engagement work. A lot of these initiatives are really a celebration of the diversity of our fan base. For example, we have Women of the Niners (WON), a fan engagement platform and official fan club for women, which reaches several thousand female fans every year through its digital magazine. We also hold events like our virtual happy hour where our female fans can hear from beat writers who cover the team and discuss the upcoming season, as well as hear from our marketing department on some of the new initiatives that are coming out. We had rap artist Saweetie, who is a 49ers fan, join one of these chats. Her grandfather, Willie Harper, was a linebacker for the 49ers in the 70s and 80s so it was really cool to link that history.
We also have 49ers Pride, our fan engagement platform for the LGBTQ+ community and allies. A big part of that is making sure all of our LGBTQ+ fans know that they have a safe space here at the 49ers and that we welcome them as an important part of our fan base, while also encouraging all of our fans who are allies to speak up and show that we are one community. We participate in the San Francisco Pride Parade, hold watch parties in The Castro, and generally bring two very important parts of San Francisco’s cultural life – its football team and its vibrant LGBTQ+ population – together.
Beyond this fan engagement work we have looked to make a positive change to our communities through direct contributions such as social justice grants, looking at commercial relationships to make sure that our business is selecting vendors in a way that reflects racial equity, and even direct interventions through policy work. We endorsed Proposition 16 in California at the 2020 election, which would have removed the ban on affirmative action involving race-based or sex-based preferences from the California Constitution.
At the Niners we also have a diversity of interviewing policy, which means that we interview at least one person of colour and at least one woman for every single business opening. We also recognise that there has to be diversity on both sides of the interview table. If we want to attract diverse candidates, the panel of people who are making the selection needs to be diverse as well.
One of the great initiatives at the Niners is the Denise DeBartolo York Fellowship, which provides opportunities for women in professional sports. Fellows are given exposure to many business divisions within the 49ers, and particularly to those where women have historically been underrepresented in sports. As an executive mentor to the programme, I have been privileged to work closely with many talented young women. Mentorship is something we all benefit from in our personal lives, whether it is offered by a supportive parent or a community leader. We also need that same support in our professional lives. Mentoring doesn’t have to be an ongoing, formal relationship between teacher and student. Some of the most useful mentoring I received came in one off conversations with people who were prepared to take the time to help me. That, for me, is the mindset of a good coach. You need to make sure you are always potentially available as a resource to others.
I began developing these views in my book, SZN of CHANGE: The Competitor’s Playbook for Joy on the Path to Victory. The book is my attempt to give people some of the tools that have worked for me, and to offer those who do not have a mentor they can call up and speak to a framework for how to think about their careers. It is best thought of a guided journal, with a structured plan for reflecting critically on what we’re doing and why. It moves from studying your own motivations and personality traits, to outlining a vision of where you want to go, right through to drawing up a game plan of how to execute this vision and make it a reality. It also covers what I call “reading your clips”, which is all about how you take in outside information and understanding the difference between constructive criticism and noise that you need to tune out, and tips for “in-game adjustments” when things get tough. Finally, I look at recovery – just like athletes, all of us need recovery and self-care – and practice. How do we continue to use these tools going forward? These tools are a part of a long-term plan, and keeping a journal is something that can help people make sure the dedication to self-improvement sticks.
Obviously, the book is heavily influenced by my time in sports, and there is a simple reason for that. A lot of the tricks that help an athlete to overcome challenges and push on to success are equally relevant to business. For diverse candidates who feel the odds are stacked against them, I hope it fires them up to fight even harder.