A chat with NFL’s first — and only — female general manager
‘You better have thick skin,’ advises Susan Spencer of Philadelphia Eagles
Staff Blog: Sports business
A trailblazer for women in the senior ranks of pro sports was Susan Spencer, who become the NFL’s first and only general manager after her father, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles at the time, elevated her to that role in 1984.
She had joined the team in the late 1970s as a legal counsel after law school, and eventually came to work for her father as his free-spending ways had put the team in financial jeopardy.
The general manager role didn’t include identifying football talent, but it did include control of all spending — a vital job on a money-losing team. She negotiated and signed all contracts, and her cost-cutting measures — she switched the Eagles from a jumbo jet to a smaller, more fuel-efficient plane for cross-country trips — often put her at loggerheads with famed coach Dick Vermeil, players and fans.
“I was doing my job. What I tried to do was make it a business. They had to come to me for a signature for anything. It’s not easy to make friends that way,” Spencer said. “Every time I would walk into a luncheon or a speech, everybody got up and booed me. I just kept going. If you’re going to be a female in a sports office, you better have thick skin. If you don’t, you’re going to be miserable. I didn’t take it personally at all. The ‘Wicked Witch of the Vet,’ that was me.”
She also dealt with sexual harassment from players despite her role and being daughter of the team owner.
More than 30 years later, she said it’s still very difficult for women to break into the highest levels of football.
“It’s very hard in the inner circle because it’s the good old boys and always has been,” Spencer said.
In a 2011 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News in 2011, Spencer said hiring more women could help add more empathy to a league struggling with injury concerns and the health concerns of retired players.
“Women are more sensitive, more sympathetic. Women ask questions. Men don’t. Ego gets in the way,” she was quoted as saying.
Spencer, now 72 and running a Las Vegas nonprofit that helps underprivileged high school athletes, has written a book, Briefcase Essentials, aimed at helping women survive in traditionally male industries. She also often speaks on the topic of women in the C-suite and to women who want to break into pro sports.
“I have to tell them to learn the sport. Learn the game, watch the game, read the books,” she said.