Hannah Gordon’s unconventional journey from would-be sportswriter to one of the top legal positions in the National Football League is framed by her office window. Visible outside the glass in her upstairs office at the NFL’s 49ers Santa Clara headquarters is an enormous—and growing daily—structure of steel and concrete.
“That’s my baby,” Gordon, JD ’08, says of the new 49ers stadium rising next door. Beneath that impressive vista is a row of books on Gordon’s desk. One book is turned around, the title on its spine unreadable. But when Gordon pulls it out, the yellow cover is unmistakable: Football for Dummies. A 49ers colleague told Gordon, 32, that someone in her lofty position couldn’t possibly keep such a simpleton text in plain view on her desk. She would risk her credibility. But she can’t bear to throw away the keepsake from an earlier time, her study guide from her years as an undergrad at UCLA when she was a newly named football beat writer for the student newspaper. That was when she first became passionate about football.
“I don’t need it anymore,” Gordon says. “But it’s a fond reminder.” The yellow book is point A. The 49ers stadium outside the window is point B. The onetime football “dummy” is now the 49ers director of legal affairs. Gordon handles the legal aspects of the 49ers day-to-day operations, including the sponsorship deals and vendor agreements for the new stadium, which is scheduled to open next season.
“When I got here, I was thrown into the fire, and I’ve come out alive,” she says.
The path from Football for Dummies to a state-of-the-art stadium in the world’s most powerful sports league was hardly a straight line or obvious route. Gordon took chances and made changes before ending up with what she considers her dream job. That is a common thread for many attorneys working in sports.
Stanford Law has produced numerous movers and shakers in the sports world. Chuck Armstrong, JD ’67, serves as president of the Seattle Mariners, and classmate Bill Neukom, LLB ’67, was president of the San Francisco Giants when that team won its first World Series. Scott Blackmun, JD ’82, is the CEO of the U. S. Olympic Committee. Three Stanford Law alumni have led the U.S. Golf Association, including Frank “Sandy” Tatum Jr., JD ’49 (BA ’42), Jim Vernon, JD ’75 (BS ’71), and Glen D. Nager, JD ’82, who is the current president of the USGA. And several are athletes and coaches, such as Kate Paye, JD/MBA ’03 (BA ’95), who is an assistant coach on the successful Stanford women’s basketball team.
But there is no more mighty or influential sports league in the world than the National Football League, and three out of the 32 team in-house legal departments are headed by Stanford Law alumni. The three are Ed Policy, JD ’96, with the Green Bay Packers, David Koeninger, JD ’98, with the Arizona Cardinals, and Gordon with the San Francisco 49ers.
A common thread for these Stanford JDs is William Gould, Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus, who has taught his popular Sports Law seminar for a quarter of a century. During that time, the business of sports has exploded and Gould has witnessed a corresponding growth in the need for attorneys in the sports industry. And he has been in a position to see that growth firsthand—he served as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, has been a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators since 1970, and has arbitrated and mediated more than 200 labor disputes, including the 1992 and 1993 salary disputes between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee. With his expertise in labor law and his scholarship in the field (such as his recent book Bargaining with Baseball: Labor Relations in an Age of Prosperous Turmoil), Gould has been a key part of the development of sports law.
“I see the role of lawyers in this business expanding,” Gould says. “There are so many issues and problems that call for a legal background. Leaders and owners are much more willing to rely on technical people for these complex issues now. It was much more of an insiders’ club before.”
Now, owners understand that they need legal expertise, he adds. But there is no secret recipe for how that need is filled, no map to tell lawyers how to arrive at their destination.
Of the three Stanford Law alumni currently working in the NFL, Ed Policy may have taken the most clear-cut path. He is vice president and general counsel for the Green Bay Packers, precisely the same title his father Carmen Policy held for the 49ers back in the 1980s.
Before coming in-house with the 49ers in the 1980s, the elder Policy was an attorney for Edward DeBartolo, Jr., owner of the 49ers (and Ed Policy’s namesake). Carmen Policy rose to be team president during the 49ers dynasty years, becoming one of the first attorneys to be in such a prominent position in the NFL.
“Before that, it was usually people who came from inside the ownership family or football people,” Carmen Policy, a graduate of Georgetown Law, says. “But I was in a unique position of trust with the family company and they needed someone to come out from Ohio and run the team.”
Carmen Policy’s success two decades ago, navigating the newly implemented salary cap and the increasingly complex legalities of the NFL, helped change the way lawyers are viewed in the league. During Policy’s years at the helm of the 49ers, his middle son Ed moved out to Palo Alto, settling just a few blocks from his father, and entered law school at Stanford.
“I studied hard, but I took every Sunday afternoon in the fall off,” says Ed Policy, whose second year at Stanford coincided with the 49ers winning the Super Bowl.
Despite that weekly infusion of football and his father’s unfailing enthusiasm for the work, Ed Policy didn’t pursue a job in sports upon earning his JD. Instead, he took a more traditional law firm path, joining Heller Ehrman in San Francisco and then Thompson Hine LLP in Cleveland, where he worked on sports facility construction.
“I believed in the importance of getting a solid base in business or law firm work first. And I still recommend that to law students I speak to,” he says. “It brings a lot more to an organization if you’ve already got a solid base as a lawyer.”
In 2001, Ed Policy went to the Arena Football League, learning every area of a growing sports business and eventually becoming the league commissioner, president, and CEO. He describes that experience as an invaluable chance to build his knowledge of various aspects of the sports business including labor negotiations, television deals, public relations, league expansion, finance, and football operations. After nine years in the AFL, he joined the NFL as an executive consultant at the league headquarters in New York.
When the NFL was heading toward a lockout in 2010, he left to join a fully funded startup. Then, the position with the Packers became available, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Every NFL team structures its front office and its legal department differently. The Packers are a particularly unique organization in that the team is publicly owned, with more than 360,000 shareholders and a 43-member board of directors.
“It’s a romantic story of a proud community that wouldn’t let its football team die or move away,” Policy says. “We are the stewards of a vital community asset. The Packers relationship with the community is essential to us.”
Still, much of his day-to-day is like that of any lawyer running legal for a large organization. Policy, 43, interacts with the board of directors. He oversees corporate governance, making sure the team is compliant with state and federal laws that other teams might not have to consider. He is also spearheading a land use project around Lambeau Field, overseeing renovations of and improvements on the historic stadium.
Policy’s dad Carmen loved working for a football team, not being tied to billable hours, finding immense satisfaction in a job where an attorney can use all his talents and still feel part of a family. He has passed that enthusiasm along to his son. Though his father says he now turns to his son for legal advice, Ed Policy says he is lucky to have such a trusted resource.
“Things in the NFL have changed, but my father was there when they really began to change,” he says. “He understands the dynamics.”
Policy has been with the Packers for a year now. And he’s thriving. “No two days are the same,” he says.
That unpredictability is one of the most attractive things about working in the sports world. “I never really know what’s going to happen when I come in,” says David Koeninger, general counsel for the Arizona Cardinals.
But at least Koeninger now knows what time zone he’s in. Compared with his previous job in corporate law—it’s a welcome change.
Koeninger’s path to the NFL was an unexpected one. He was originally headed toward a career as a professor of English literature when he realized it wasn’t for him and dropped out of a PhD program at Loyola University in Chicago, after completing his master’s degree. A year later, he entered Stanford Law School, but still without a particular focus.
“With every class I took, I was learning about new things and thinking about different career opportunities,” he says.
Capital Markets and Securities Law, taught by Joseph Grundfest, JD ’78, W. A. Franke Professor of Law and Business, piqued his interest and led to his first career as a finance and securities lawyer with the firm that is now Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Koeninger was there for a decade, working primarily on the Chevron account. He made partner, got married, bought a house in San Francisco, and had kids.
“I thought that was it,” he says. “I loved it.”
But he was traveling all the time, back and forth to Russia and to Asia. He knew something was out of balance when he reached 1K status (100,000 miles) in United’s frequent flyer program during March of one year. He had two small boys, one of whom believed his father worked “at the airport.”
In the summer of 2008, as the financial world was crumbling, an email came across Koeninger’s computer that the Arizona Cardinals were looking for a general counsel. Pillsbury had done some work for the Bidwills, the family that owns the Cardinals. Michael Bidwill, the team’s general counsel, was transitioning into the role of team president and looking for someone to replace him.
“It was an innocuous looking email,” Koeninger says. “I hadn’t explored another job for a long time but I thought it would be worth a look. As I learned more, it became clear that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
He responded to the query—then months went by without contact. But when the Cardinals came to San Francisco for the first game of the 2008 season, Koeninger received a phone call. He met with Bidwill and traveled to Arizona a few times. He went to work for the Cardinals on January 2, 2009, the day before the team played in a Wild Card game in its home stadium. The Cardinals won, beginning an improbable run to Super Bowl XLIII. The month-long drama underscored the unique quality of Koeninger’s new legal career.
“It’s very emotional,” he says. “You can walk into our building on any Monday and know immediately if we won or lost, because of the mood in the building.”
Koeninger didn’t know anyone in sports before he took the job, but his new boss, Michael Bidwill, became his mentor. Now, everything legal goes through Koeninger, including contracts, stadium lease matters, and human resources issues. He also acts as a legal advisor to every department. Koeninger learned quickly there’s a big difference between public—as in a Wall Street company—and public—as in an NFL team.
“Everyone’s watching,” he says. “Win or lose, everyone driving into work hears about it on the radio. It’s very public, at a much more detailed level.”
Koeninger, 42, is frequently asked for advice on how to get into the world of sports law.
“That’s a hard question for me to answer because this wasn’t planned,” he says. “I would recommend that whatever you’re doing, do it the best you can and become as good as you can. For me, it was pure dumb luck.”
But for Gordon, her job is the result of studying and planning. Unlike Koeninger, she was pointing toward a career in sports for many years, but just wasn’t sure what area she would be working in.
Growing up in Oakland, California, Gordon had no affinity for team sports—she was a shy, quiet dancer. But as a freshman at UCLA, she turned on her television, saw Hannah Storm reporting on the Lakers at halftime of a play-off game and had a sudden epiphany: “That’s what I want to do.”
And when Gordon decides to do something, she finds a way. She worked at the Daily Bruin and became the first female beat writer for the football team. She fell in love with the sport, studied it closely, and figured she would eventually end up as a sportswriter. An internship with the Oakland Raiders one summer only solidified her love of the game.
But on the day Newsday offered her a sports writing job, Gordon had already accepted an offer to write player blog entries for the NFL Players Association website. She followed that up by working at the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant sports information director. When she was accepted at Stanford Law School, her first thought was that she might take her love of sports into the sports agency business. But a brief stint at an agency changed her mind.
“I realized I wasn’t quite the right cut,” she says. “It was a lot of sales and I don’t think I’m a tremendous saleswoman.”
Gould appreciates that. He says that for a time in the 1990s, most of his students wanted to be agents, fueled by the popularity of the film Jerry Maguire.
“I try to disabuse them of that notion,” Gould says. He focuses his course primarily on issues of contract, antitrust, and labor and how they intersect with the sports world. And he usually makes Labor Law a prerequisite.
“My principal overriding theme is the business as it relates to the relationship between players and owners,” he says.
At Stanford Law, Gordon soaked up all of the sports information available, including Gould’s class and George Foster’s (PhD ’75) sports business class. But she doesn’t think that kind of specific education is necessary.
“I’m of the camp that believes there is no such thing as sports law,” she says. “It’s just an industry. I think you should go to the best law school you can and it won’t matter if it has a sports program or not. I still would have loved going to Stanford, even if it didn’t have a single sports class.”
Gould agrees with her, though thinks there are enough situations unique to sports that his class is worthwhile for anyone planning a sports career. He brings in experts to speak to his classes, letting students get a peek into what a career in sports would look like.
Female students are in the minority in Gould’s class though. When Gordon took his class, she stood out because of her specific interest in a career in sports. She went back to the Raiders for a summer job in the team’s legal department, handling players’ grievances. She got to know Amy Trask, who earned her JD at the University of Southern California and was one of the most influential women in the NFL, working closely with Raiders’ owner Al Davis before she left the team in 2013.
Gordon spent a summer working for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., doing labor work for the NFL. After graduating from Stanford Law in 2008, she took a job with Latham & Watkins in San Francisco, doing transactional work. As the economy suffered, she became one of the multitudes of first-year associates who were laid off.
“After that, I gave a lot of thought to what I was passionate about,” she says. “When I was at the law firm, I thought this is such a blessed life for somebody but it isn’t what lights my fire.”
As she pondered her future, she saw a posting online to work with the NFL Management Council. She immediately applied, was hired, and headed to New York to work for a league that was gearing up for a lockout. At first she worked on salary cap compliance but eventually became the keeper of the documents and the primary communicator with teams over the prolonged and heated labor negotiations.
“We all knew Hannah,” Koeninger says of Gordon.
She also worked with Ed Policy, who was at the time a consultant and acted as a mentor to her. In her position, Gordon made connections with all 32 teams and learned about the different parts of the business, including public relations, sponsorship issues, and broadcasting deals—all of which were affected by the lockout.
In 2011, after the NFL had locked out its players, 49ers chief operating officer Paraag Marathe (MBA ’04) called her and asked if her door was closed.
“Uh oh,” Gordon remembers thinking. “The 49ers have done something bad.”
Actually, it was something good, as far as Gordon was concerned. The 49ers were gearing up for the construction of the new stadium and would need to create a new position: director of legal affairs. For Gordon it sounded like the perfect job—even better because she could come home to the Bay Area.
“The 49ers hired me, knowing there would be an explosion of work,” she says.
There has been. Gordon arrived at the 49ers just before the lockout was resolved with a new collective bargaining agreement. She lives around the corner from the office and is always close to her all-consuming job. She reports to Executive Vice President Patty Inglis, who is an attorney. While the NFL isn’t populated with many women in positions of authority, law is one area where women have risen to executive roles with women handling the legal departments for five of the 32 teams (including Robyn Glaser in New England, Aileen Daly in Philadelphia, Suzie Thomas in Houston, and Vicki Neumeyer in New Orleans).
“The legal field is an area where women have contributed to the NFL,” says Gordon.
And Gordon is having a great time working in this area of law. She loves the rhythm of the season, the lead-up to games, and the emotional aftermath. This winter, though, she will take time out of her schedule to help train the next crop of sports enthusiasts at Stanford Law by teaching Advanced Legal Writing: Drafting and Negotiating Sports Law Transactions, with Richard Brand of Arent Fox. However, she is hoping that Brand will cover for her during the first few weeks of class—if her team goes to the Super Bowl.
Like Koeninger and Policy, Gordon loves the emotional feel in her team’s building, the sense of everyone working together. It’s the kind of experience she might not get in another area of law.
“You actually feel you’re part of something bigger than yourself,” she says. “You’re part of a team.” SL
Ann Killion is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.