Jackie Davidson: The Jets Chief Negotiator

Originally published on PARTNERS.VICE.COM

The front-office executive dishes on contract negotiations, the salary cap, and her professional role models.

Jacqueline Davidson, one of the highest-ranking women in an NFL team’s front office, used to play football outside her apartment complex with neighborhood friends in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But it took Jerry Maguire to make her realize she wanted to carve out a career in the sport. “It just came together at that moment, and I was like, ‘Oh okay, Tom Cruise. I see you,’” she says.

She first got her foot in the door at the league offices in 2004, when she worked as a legal intern with the NFL Management Council while pursuing her law degree at Cornell. She worked for US district courts before joining the New York Jets’ front office in 2007. In 2015, the Jets promoted her to director, football administration. Now in her eleventh season with the team, Davidson is the chief negotiator for player contracts, helping to manage the salary cap. I caught up with Davidson on a busy Friday at the Jets practice facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, to learn more about her path from sports fan to sports executive.

What made you want to work in the NFL?

As cliché as it sounds, I saw the movie Jerry Maguire when I was probably 11 or 12. I don’t really remember what it was about it that attracted me to it, but I just knew that I wanted to be a part of that world and a part of that environment. It was like a kid that went to Barnum & Bailey and fell in love with the circus.

Once you had it in your head to pursue a career in the NFL, how did you go about it?

I had this conversation with my mother. She didn’t know anything about what it takes to make it in the NFL. We basically started getting a lot of literature and just reading as much as we could about the different jobs, [jobs] that were both in the league office [and] at clubs. One of the reasons I applied to New York-based law schools was because the NFL’s league office was in New York. It was a better way to get close. I heard internships are the gold standard—that’s the golden rule of what you want to do. Really, it was about reading and trying to put myself in the best position to get my foot in the door.

What are some of the biggest day-to-day challenges in your role?

Probably interfacing with so many different departments, and just trying to make sure everybody is on the same page. I can go from talking to the general manager and head coach, to the [chief financial officer] and medical staff, making sure that everyone’s complying with the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), and on the same page across the board.

What sort of challenges do you encounter while negotiating contracts with players?

The valuation of it. Very rarely do two people get on the phone, and you say it’s worth this, I say it’s this, and we both agree. It’s usually not that. Sometimes there is no way to bridge the gap. Sometimes it’s either A or it’s B, and so it’s trying to figure out should you go to B if you’re at A? Is there something we can do that’s in between?

You’ve been working in the league since 2004. How have you seen it grow?

It’s a lot more inclusive. It’s obviously undergone a lot of changes socially. I think to a certain extent I was a little insulated from [the big changes]. Dawn Aponte was here before I was, so it wasn’t unusual for a female to work inside the [Jets] contract department. But now, it’s a lot more commonplace to see females in high-ranking positions, at the team level and definitely at the league level.

You mentioned Dawn Aponte. Were there other people in the industry you looked up to when you were starting out?

I would say Katie Blackburn is probably one. [Note: Blackburn was the first woman to be a chief contract negotiator in the NFL, and is currently the executive vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals.] When I was interning at the league office in 2004, one of my first trips to an NFL stadium, first trip to an NFL office, I was with a league lawyer, and the Bengals had a grievance. So we went there, and it was my first introduction to Katie and what she did. I remember being kind of blown away that this was Katie Blackburn, and she did a lot of the things that I was hoping to do in the future. You know of people, obviously, coming up, the Amy Trasks of the world, who made her [career] with the Raiders. And I learned a lot about Dawn while I was here, so those three were probably the main ones.

What’s it like on the flipside, now that you could be someone that other people look up to?

I like it—I delight in it. But it’s also kind of strange in a way, because I don’t necessarily see myself that way. I still imagine myself as this 25-year-old kid, kind of lost—which I am not, but I still sort of see myself that way. I’m very fortunate to be in a position [to inspire others]. It’s not something I take lightly, and if I am that to someone, than I’m very humbled and appreciative.

Rebecca Farkas