By Inyoung Choi
This article is part of an ongoing series celebrating Stanford women in sports in honor of Women’s History Month, which is commemorated throughout March. This weekly series will feature profiles of current and former professional athletes, sports journalists and executives.
In the San Francisco 49ers’ 74-year history, the team has won five Super Bowls, and the 2019-20 season was a chance for a sixth. The 49ers began the season 8-0 for the first time in 30 years — surpassing their win totals from the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons combined — propelling them to a NFC championship and their first Super Bowl appearance in seven seasons.
In the end, the 49ers were unable to lift the Lombardi Trophy, however, after giving up 21 points in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers fell 31-20 to the Kansas City Chiefs. Nevertheless, many analysts named the 49ers’ season one of the best single-season turnarounds in NFL history, illustrating just how far the San Francisco team came in only a few months.
A large part of this comeback was the front office staff, which supported the players from behind the scenes. One such playmaker was 49ers Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel Hannah Gordon J.D. ’08.
Gordon is currently in her ninth year with the 49ers and is one of a few female executives in the male-dominated NFL.
“[The 2019-20 season] really was magical — not just because it was successful, but because there were so many nail biter thrilling games. I thought I might actually faint during one of those games,” Gordon said with a laugh. “It was really awesome to be a part of that.”
After Stanford law, Gordon joined the 49ers in 2011 as director of legal affairs, then became the vice president of legal and government affairs in 2015. As general counsel, a position she has held since the 2016-17 season, Gordon has been recognized a number of times for her work; In 2017, NFL.com cited her as one of 15 influential women in football, and in 2019 the Silicon Valley Business Journal named her a Woman of Influence – establishing her as one of the most impactful women in football.
“I love the people,” Gordon said, when asked why she chose a career in sports. “[I love] the fact that you get to have this common goal and great camaraderie.”
As much as sports bolsters camaraderie, they also drive competition. With a self-confessed competitive spirit, Gordon has been intent on a career in sports since becoming a football beat writer for the Daily Bruin while an undergraduate at UCLA.
After stints working in sports media and PR following her undergraduate graduation in 2003, Gordon enrolled at Stanford Law School in 2005 with the goal of using her degree as a platform to further a sports career. While enrolled, she sought classes and internships that would help launch such a career. Gordon enrolled in coursework like Professor Emeritus William Gould’s “Sports Law” seminar and Graduate School of Business professor Geroge Foster’s course on the sports industry.
While juggling coursework in her first year, Gordon also picked up freelance writing work for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the labor organization representing NFL players, where she had briefly worked during the 2003 season prior to attending law school.
Following her first year in law school, Gordon interned for the Oakland Raiders and then spent the following summer at a law firm that worked with the NFL. Through her internships, classes and any other opportunity she could seize, Gordon built a foundation that would prove informative in her subsequent career.
Matt Doyle, Stanford’s director of football operations and senior associate athletics director, first met Gordon when she was a law student and has worked with her on various occasions since. In one such commitment, Gordon spoke as a guest panelist at the Stanford Women’s Football Clinic in both 2016 and 2018.
“[Gordon] is quite possibly one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met,” Doyle said. “She’s just been really helpful to us in our organization, as well as me professionally.”
As general counsel and chief administrative officer, Gordon now oversees legal affairs and community relations for the 49ers, actively contending with policies and programs that concern both her team and the league at large.
“I think that we’re always evolving,” Gordon said.
Programs and policies that govern the league shape the environment in which professional athletes compete. Last year, for example, the NFL and NFLPA announced joint agreements to support additional resources for athletes’ behavioral and mental health.
“I think it’s really great — the programming and things that we’re able to focus on,” Gordon said of both her team and the league at large’s behavioral health initiatives. “We see players as whole people, as they are.”
“These are the greatest athletes in the world, and their performance depends, as all of our performance does, on our total health: our mental health [and] our physical health,” Gordon said. “The rest of us have a lot to learn from that because I think most of us probably neglect aspects of our health all the time. We’re like, ‘Oh I don’t have time for lunch. I need to rush this email. I need to do this and that.’ Whereas if we treated ourselves the way the professional athletes do, knowing that our bodies and our minds are our most precious asset, we would probably behave a lot more like them.”
“I wish every employer in America offered the kind of benefits that we offer to our players,” she said. “Most of my friends who have jobs [don’t] have a behavioral health counselor on staff [available] to them every single week, for free.”
For Gordon, sports have always been about the people they bring together. She now hopes to use her platform to create an inclusive community for all.
“[When] I started in my career, I was a female who was very young and had no power,” Gordon said. “Now I’m older and have more power, so that’s a very different experience. I think that I’ve become more vocal [and] more comfortable talking about issues like gender that I was very uncomfortable with early on because I know that there’s somebody else who’s very young, and [I] can speak up [for her] … To me, it feels more like a responsibility than anything else.”
Contact Inyoung Choi at ichoi ‘at’ stanford.edu.