Can Anna Isaacson save the NFL?

NEW YORK -- Sitting behind a sparkling glass table frosted with the NFL logo, the woman handpicked by Roger Goodell to help save his football league leans back, folds her arms and listens. It's early October, only a few weeks from the Ray Rice fiasco, and tensions at the league's Park Avenue headquarters are high. In the next hour, Anna Isaacson will gather input from a cast of experts and finalize the domestic violence and sexual assault seminars the league will soon roll out to all 32 teams.

The subject is complex. The stakes are high. No detail -- not even something as seemingly insignificant as the program's title -- can be overlooked. The group started with "Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Education 101." Boring. In an email chain a day earlier, someone proposed "Setting the Standard." Isaacson was unimpressed. But now, former NFL running back Keith Elias, who works for the league's player engagement program, is explaining the weight of those words. "For a player coming in, it won't look like something he has to learn but rather something empowering he can participate in," Elias says. "It's a way to open their hearts and minds to this education. To pique their interest."

Dwight Hollier, a former NFL linebacker and the league's director of transition and clinical services, agrees. Others in the room do, too. Isaacson takes it all in. She nods.

"I'm sold," she says.

The fact that this woman is making these decisions is surprising, to say the least. At 35 years old, with limited prior experience working on domestic violence and sexual assault issues, Isaacson is the most unlikely of NFL saviors. Her athletic career consists of one Little League baseball season. She taught herself the rules of football by reading "Football for Dummies." She landed her first job at the NFL in 2006 by applying on the league's website. Yet on Sept. 15, when the league was in crisis as a result of its fumbling the Rice case and other domestic violence accusations involving NFL players, Goodell named Isaacson the league's first vice president of social responsibility.

Her work on domestic violence and sexual assault issues had begun months before the announcement, in the wake of the outcry over Rice's initial, two-game suspension in late July. That's when Goodell commissioned Isaacson to lead an internal critique of the league's domestic violence and sexual assault policies while building a network of outside experts the league could lean on for advice. The most visible result of those initial conversations was the league's August announcement of new punishments for violations of the league's personal conduct policy pertaining to assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault: a six-game suspension for the first offense and a lifetime ban for the second.

One of the league's new experts, Lisa Friel, a former New York prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes, didn't know what to think when she first met Isaacson. "I remember looking at how young she appeared and thinking to myself, 'This is a big job at a critical time for someone who looks like a kid,'" Friel said. "But her ability to navigate the NFL world and her pick-up of this subject matter, something she had no expertise in until a couple months ago ... it's been incredible."

Critics wonder whether Goodell's move is more spin than substance. What qualifies Isaacson to lead the NFL through one of the biggest crises in its 94-year history? Is this a classic case of a "glass cliff," in which a woman is put in charge only when there's a problem, and if she fails to solve that problem, she's ushered out the door? Or as the league and those close to Isaacson insist, is she the exact type of outside-the-box thinker the NFL so desperately needs?

"This has been a difficult time, of course," Isaacson said. "There's a lot of pressure to fix this and make it right. But a lot of that is pressure I put on myself. And I relish the opportunity to make it right."

TO UNDERSTAND how Isaacson ended up here requires a trip back to Brooklyn's Kings Plaza Mall in 2002. Shortly after earning a degree in history from Manhattan's all-women's Barnard College, Isaacson took a job with the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team. Her responsibilities included selling souvenirs from a cart in the mall.

She grew up in Brooklyn, the only daughter of a teacher and an office supplies salesman. Her mother was a huge New York Yankees fan, but her father thought more highly of participating in sports than watching them. "It was my job to make sure she didn't throw a baseball like a girl," Matthew Isaacson said with a chuckle.

As Anna grew older, she knew she wanted to work in sports and aspired to be a broadcaster. At Barnard, she helped call Columbia football and basketball games for the campus radio station, but she struggled with anxiety. "I hated it," she said. "Once the nerves came, it was like, 'OK, let's go behind the scenes.'"

Writing a college paper about the potential economic impact if the Yankees were to leave the Bronx led to a part-time gig selling souvenirs across the street from Yankee Stadium. That experienced prompted Steve Cohen, vice president of the Cyclones, to hire Isaacson for a $7-an-hour job in the team's merchandising department. And that brought her to the Kings Plaza Mall.

Isaacson peddled hats and shirts from her mall cart for a little more than six months and dealt with everything from theft to people screaming at her and spitting on her. When her mom visited, Isaacson said, customers would harass her, too. "Things weren't always easy over there," Cohen said. "She dealt with a lot."

When Isaacson had finally had enough, she crafted a 16-point memo to Cohen and the Cyclones management outlining her issues working at the mall.

"It was very straight," Isaacson said with a laugh. "I was so serious. All these issues of why we shouldn't sell there anymore. And they all just found it hysterical. I think they still circulate that memo today to get a good laugh."

Working for a minor league team gave her a wide range of experiences. By 2006, she had curated memorabilia for a Brooklyn baseball museum and organized a 50-year reunion of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series champion team. She built a youth curriculum based on the Jackie Robinson story and tutored kids from the neighborhood around the stadium. Her résumé stood out to NFL executives when she applied for a community relations job on NFL.com that year.

"I figured, if she could handle that job for a minor league baseball team without much help, she could come to our office with willing and able colleagues ready to share the load and absolutely excel," said Joe Browne, the longest-tenured NFL employee and currently the senior adviser to the commissioner. "We just needed to work on getting rid of that Brooklyn accent."

Isaacson worked with the American Heart Association on a childhood obesity prevention project and created "Crucial Catch," the league's breast cancer awareness campaign. Along the way, she worked to fit into a male-dominated office culture unlike anything she had experienced. In an effort to make friends when she first started at the NFL, Isaacson baked cookies with notes such as, "Happy Monday!" Then she'd sit in her office and watch as the cookies disappeared but no one popped in to say thank you or hello.

In an effort to help female colleagues and change the office culture, Isaacson helped launch the Women's Interactive Network to promote the career development of the league's female employees, and she became co-chairwoman of the NFL Diversity Council. She also built a reputation around the office as someone who wouldn't back down in meetings. Browne recalled Isaacson regularly butting heads with marketing staffers who wanted to use the league's free television time for commercial purposes. Isaacson thought the time would be better served promoting the league's community efforts. They were back-and-forth battles Isaacson often won. She became one of the league's fastest rising stars and in 2012 won the Commissioner's Award, given to the league's employee of the year.

"When she believes in something, she can test your patience sometimes," Browne said. "But most of the time she's right. She understands how to communicate and influence the key senior staff in the office, including the commissioner."

Behind the scenes, it hasn't always been easy. Although Isaacson insists the culture has changed considerably since she started, she describes the NFL environment as "intense" and admits that, at various moments in her eight-year tenure, she has had to go into the bathroom for a few minutes, stare in the mirror and give herself a pep talk. "Look, I'm human," she said. "Sometimes, I have to reinforce the confidence I have in myself. Sometimes, you've just got to say, 'I got this.'"

FOR ISAACSON, the morning of Sept. 8 began the same sickening way it did for millions of other people: watching video of then-Baltimore Ravens running back Rice punching his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator. She had already seen the first video -- of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator -- "and that was troubling in and of itself," but this took it to a new level. At Barnard, she had marched in "Take Back the Night" campaigns to raise awareness for sexual assault and domestic violence. Although she has never been a victim, she said, the issues have "touched my life and, frankly, shaped who I am."

In her role as the league's vice president for community relations and philanthropy, Isaacson had worked on specific projects with domestic violence and sexual assault groups, but never as deeply as she must in her new role. As one of her first moves, in July she led an internal group focusing on policy and discipline, public engagement on domestic violence and sexual assault, and how to better educate NFL executives, coaches and players. In August, she organized a meeting between the commissioner and domestic violence and sexual assault experts. That led to Goodell's Aug. 28 memo, in which he wrote, "I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."

Two-and-a-half weeks later, with the Rice story spiraling out of control after the second video went public, Goodell formally introduced Isaacson, Friel, Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Jane Randel, co-founder of the advocacy organization No More. "We are committed to putting our best people behind our most important priorities," Goodell wrote in a memo to team owners. "Our entire office will be accountable for the success of these efforts, and Anna and her team will have my full support."

The announcement didn't stop the criticism, with some activists charging that Goodell was simply throwing women at the problem to save face. "I think we always have to be skeptical," Teresa Younger, the CEO and president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, told Slate. "If they were really, truly committed to this, they wouldn't have waited until the past few weeks to do it."

Friel said she didn't agree to join the team until she asked Goodell point-blank whether her appointment was a PR move. "I didn't want to get used," she said. "I wanted to be sure we were going to have buy-in from the top."

But Goodell convinced her the league actually wanted to make a difference. "Before Anna was invited and I was invited, many of these executive vice president meetings were a group of older men sitting around," Friel said. "Now we're at the table. I mean literally. The fact that they treat us like that, the whole office sees that. It filters down to everyone."

Isaacson said she is not expected to be an expert herself, but rather, a liaison between league executives and those with more experience in the issues. And this time, the NFL is listening. "I don't have control over everything, clearly," Isaacson said. "But you have to have a voice and be able to speak up when you believe in something and fight for it. The last couple weeks have given me a greater voice to do that."

Since Isaacson's appointment, her days have become a nonstop stream of meetings, phone calls and emails with everyone from the league's executive committee to domestic violence experts. She said she has lost 10 pounds since July. She barely gets six hours of sleep a night. On her desk at the league's Manhattan headquarters sit half-empty glasses and bottles of soda and water. There's a vase of dead flowers behind her computer monitor. There just isn't time to water them or throw them away. A few weeks back, co-workers mockingly cheered when Isaacson opened a package of oatmeal that had sat on her desk untouched for several days.

Thus far, Isaacson and her team have created the new training sessions every player and league employee will go through and have persuaded league executives to sacrifice more than $10 million in advertising revenue to run a series of anti-domestic violence PSAs during televised games. When Isaacson heard the Rice scandal had prompted an 84 percent spike in calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline -- almost half of which were not being answered because of a lack of resources -- she and the commissioner visited the call center in Austin, Texas, and the league entered into a five-year, multimillion-dollar partnership to ensure fewer calls go unanswered. On Oct. 20, Isaacson hosted about 30 leaders from various domestic violence organizations to discuss how the league could improve its practices and policies. Leaders from several domestic violence prevention organizations did not return calls and emails requesting interviews.

Yet NFL leaders are still learning the basics -- from the commissioner's realizing why it was inappropriate to interview Ray and Janay Rice together to executives' concluding that covering domestic violence and sexual assault at the league's rookie symposium is simply not enough. "Our experts have told us we need to do it again and again and again," Isaacson said.

But just as important, Friel said, are smaller conversations such as the one at the end of the October meeting to finalize the education plan. There, Friel explained to one of the league's player engagement representatives that they must educate players not to look for signs of no during a sexual encounter, but rather, signs of yes. "And you have to consent to every piece as you move ahead," Friel told him. "If you consent to kissing, it doesn't mean you consent to go farther. If you consent to go farther, it doesn't mean you consent to go all the way. And frankly, if you consent to go all the way, you can change your mind in the middle of that. It's important to educate the players that this is a healthier place for them to be than waiting for someone to push them off and say no."

There are more controversial topics, such as whether a lifetime ban for someone such as Rice might do more harm than good in terms of preventing future crimes. Such a penalty, advocates have told the league, could discourage women from reporting their abuse out of fear their boyfriend or husband could lose the couple's livelihood.

Advocates have also emphasized the importance of not making every decision based on a victim's initial testimony. One study found it takes seven interactions with law enforcement or a helpline before a victim is able to break off a relationship and begin to move on. "We're all used to sitting down with a victim who says, it's my fault, I made this person angry, I pushed them first or whatever," Friel said. "It's heartfelt. But you have to look out for them in a way that they aren't looking out for themselves. And there is an outside world you have to look at. It's not just the two of them. It's the next girlfriend or their children."

ON SEPT. 19, the day of Goodell's first news conference after the second Rice video, Isaacson's newfound standing in the NFL hierarchy was made clear by her place in the room: next to the commissioner's wife, former news anchor Jane Skinner. This, Isaacson knew, would not be a day for the Brooklyn accent. Before the event, Clare Graff, an NFL publicist and close friend, encouraged her to ditch her comfortable Crocs for a pair of heels. Then Graff hinted at a little makeup. "I just asked, 'Do you have any makeup around?'" Graff said. "It was just for the press conference. I'm not her day-to-day stylist."

As the commissioner spoke, Isaacson sat to the right of the stage. Afterward, she answered a few reporters' questions and revealed her ability to stay on script and talk about the issues while saying little that could make news -- a publicist's dream.

Yet Isaacson and many of those around her scoff at the suggestion that her job is spin. "This is not fake. It's not just for show," said Matt Shapiro, who works in the NFL's fan strategy and marketing department. "Anna's thrown herself into this more than anyone else possibly could. She has the trust of everyone who works here."

Her colleagues are also fiercely protective. "You make sure you make Anna look fantastic, or I will hunt you down," Friel said with a laugh after a recent interview. "She's doing a masterful job here."

The training sessions Isaacson and her team built have already begun rolling out to teams. In the first session, Isaacson sat in the back of the room and took notes on what worked and what didn't. Tweaks will be made for future seminars. The league will also continue to implement lessons learned from the hotline, NOW and other organizations into its personal conduct policy and the way it handles future cases internally. In other words, there will be no more excuses.

Isaacson trusts the plan. Although critics might contend she's absurdly optimistic, she believes the league can become a leader in domestic violence and sexual abuse awareness and prevention.

Will that be enough to rebuild the public's trust and salvage the league's reputation? Even she knows only the decisions of NFL players will reveal the answer.