She Was Handpicked by the NFL Commish to Help the League Clean Up Its Act
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Anna Isaacson is the NFL’s first senior VP of social responsibility.
By Lisa Rabasca Roepe
In September 2014, a graphic video surfaced showing Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punching his then fiancée and dragging her, unconscious, from an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. The public was horrified — and the outcry grew louder after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for just two games. Suddenly, the league was mired in one of the biggest scandals in its history, and it turned to one woman to set things straight.
Anna Isaacson, whom Goodell named the NFL’s first-ever senior vice president of social responsibility, was 35 years old at the time, with limited experience in issues related to sexual violence and domestic abuse. But she was also known in the league, where she’d been part of the community relations group since 2006, for being unflappable.
To some, Isaacson was seen as a surprising choice to steer the NFL through the controversy, to educate players and staff while also supporting victims and raising awareness of domestic violence. “If you lined up 10 men and women, and picked the person in charge of social responsibility for the NFL, Anna would not fit any of your stereotypes,” admits Tony Porter, a domestic violence adviser for the NFL. “But she was up for the task.”
Once the Rice scandal hit, Isaacson found herself at the center of the storm.
Today, Isaacson is upbeat discussing her department’s accomplishments while at the same time acknowledging the complexities surrounding sexual abuse and violence. “The key is learning,” she says from her office in New York City, “and not jumping in thinking that you are an expert.”
Whether she’s an expert or not, sports have long been a focal part of Isaacson’s life. Raised in Brooklyn, New York — her mom was a schoolteacher and her dad ran an office supplies business — she attended Barnard College, where she broadcast radio shows for the Columbia University Lions. During the summer, Isaacson worked at a souvenir shop outside Yankee Stadium, and after graduating in 2001, she took a job with the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
While working with the Cyclones, Isaacson also managed the Brooklyn Baseball Gallery, a celebration of the game’s local history — and of Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to sign with a major league team. It was there, Isaacson says, where she learned that sports can shift attitudes and be a force for positive change.
After five seasons with the Cyclones, she was hired by the NFL as director of community relations, where she ran campaigns that included Play 60, a program encouraging kids to be active, and Crucial Catch, geared toward cancer education. For her efforts, Isaacson won the 2012 Commissioner’s Award, given to the league’s employee of the year.
Once the Rice scandal hit, Isaacson found herself at the center of the storm, trying to navigate new territory while answering to an outraged public. The initial response came when Commissioner Goodell revised the league’s personal conduct policy: In cases of assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault, a first offense would draw a six-game suspension, and the second a lifetime ban.
But a bigger question loomed: How do you prevent domestic violence and sexual assault in a culture where aggressive behavior is part of the game? Isaacson responded by convening a group to focus on NFL policy, how it engages with the public around sexual assault and domestic violence and ways to educate the league’s coaches and players.
The task at hand was daunting because Isaacson needed to get a clear understanding of domestic violence and sexual assault by connecting with experts and advocates from all over the country, Porter says. “There was a lot for her to learn and little time for her to learn it,” he explains.
Soon, though, the NFL had taken a leadership role in pulling together the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV) and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) to form Raliance, a national organization focused on ending sexual violence in one generation, says Karen Baker, a managing partner of Raliance and director of the NSVRC. Until 2014, the sexual assault prevention movement was very decentralized, she explains. “We realized we were missing opportunities and needed a more visible presence and access point for the media, funders and people looking for resources.”
The NFL’s annual pledge of $2.1 million plus in-kind services, such as computer equipment, has allowed Raliance to issue $600,000 in grants each year to support victims of sexual violence, efforts to change attitudes that normalize sexual violence and grassroots prevention initiatives. The league has also pledged $20 million to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Yet the progress and goodwill the NFL had achieved suffered a blow in 2016 when Dallas Cowboy Ezekiel Elliott was accused by a former girlfriend of attacking her, with photos of her injuries posted on Instagram. The NFL responded by suspending Elliott for six games.
“They learned something between the two incidents,” Baker says. “I don’t know how many games is the right number, but six games makes a significant statement to the player and the other teammates.”
It’s a statement of zero tolerance the NFL continues to reinforce — from requiring players and staff to complete coursework distilling the latest research on gender-based violence to its “NFL Players Say No More” broadcasts, which bring the hidden issue of domestic violence into the open. “It’s an issue that people traditionally don’t want to talk about,” Baker says, but the NFL is using its name and resources to push the conversation forward.
And yet, despite the community outreach and financial support, the scourge of gender-based violence continues unabated, with statistics showing that 1 of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Meanwhile, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.
Change takes time, Isaacson says, and the NFL’s pledge to help raise awareness and prevent domestic violence and sexual abuse is a long-term commitment. “The league has always tried to be more than just a game on the field and to leave a positive legacy,” she says.
Words that would sound like spin if it weren’t obvious that Isaacson wholeheartedly believes in the power of sports to change our perceptions and even — cue Jackie Robinson — the course of history. “Sports,” she insists, “have a way of lifting society up.”
5 Questions for Anna Isaacson
What’s your favorite book? Wait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
What do you worry about? Making sure my son grows up to be a kind and empathetic man.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My family. I’m very attached.
Who’s your hero? I’ve got a few. But Jackie Robinson has always been primary.
What’s one item on your bucket list? I need to take my son to Serbia and Croatia, where my in-laws were born. And get him to Israel as well.
- Lisa Rabasca Roepe, OZY Author Contact Lisa Rabasca Roepe