Women: NFL Football Game Changers

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

Women in the NFL, National Football League, footballMen dominate football, but the game is slowly being played, coached and managed by women. But it’s still a man’s game. Although the league has female employees, they do not include female head coaches or general managers.

The model is changing. According to the NFL, 55 women work for teams in football operations. Last season, the NFL had 10 female coaches—three full-time and seven interns. That is twice as many as 2017 and 1,000 percent growth from five years ago, when Jen Welter was the only woman coaching in the league.

Women account for almost half of the NFL’s fan base but make up just a third of league employees. More women watch the Super Bowl than the Grammys and Oscars combined, but women want to be more than fans. They want to play, coach and manage.

Women as NFL Pioneers

Like any large corporation, the NFL deals with workplace misconduct, including player protests, domestic violence, sexual harassment and of course, the gender barrier.

Jen Welter, NFL, female coaching intern, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jen Welter, First Female Coaching Intern

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made football history by hiring the first female coach, Jen Welter, as a training camp intern in 2015. Today six of the NFL’s 32 teams (the Titans, Bears, Lions, Bills, 49ers and Raiders) are owned by women. That said, some are shadow owners with trusts or male relative as owners of record.

Not every NFL job is about coaching or scouting. Women work as equipment and video managers and in officiating and analytics roles. The trouble is, we don’t hear about them, and when we do it comes with a nudge, nudge wink, wink preface.

Breaking the Gender Barrier

In a league dominated by men, women are breaking the gender barrier. In a game known for brutality, speed and strength, its logical to assume men fill the leadership roles.

We might be tempted to think of a female hire as a publicity stunt or an attempt to level the gender playing field. We might be right. Games are played before huge crowds and seen on national television, subjecting women (and men) in high pressure roles to intense media scrutiny.

Hiring females creates headlines, but it also generates extra pressure and attention.  Failure is not an option. Breaking barriers in sports has never been easy, but to quote Roger Goodell, “times are changing.”

Four NFL Females to Watch

Like any profession, gender should not play a role in the hiring decision. But it does and in a large enough pool of candidates, there is always a qualified woman among the men.  Here are four to watch.

  • Kathryn Smith: is the first full-time female coach in NFL history. Smith was also the only woman to hold a full-time coaching position in the NFL until the San Francisco 49ers hired Katie Sowers in 2017.
  • Samantha Rappaport: In her role as the NFL’s director of football development, Rapoport is tasked with ensuring females can succeed at all levels in a male-dominated league. She is also involved in initiatives to develop and promote diverse candidates into the football operations pipeline.
  • Katie Sowers: At 31 years old she became the NFL’s first openly gay and second full-time female coach. She works as an offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, making her the team’s first female assistant coach and the first woman to ever coach in the Super Bowl.
  • Kelsey Martinez: the Oakland Raiders’ first female assistant coach in the franchise’s history. Although she is currently the only woman in the NFL to work as a strength and conditioning coach, she is no longer with the team. Last year she was released and replaced by a man.

New NFL Hiring Practices

Although there are women among the league’s 2,000 employees, they’re in roles such as legal counsel, medical adviser, and social responsibility. In jobs that actually deal with football, they’re nearly nonexistent.

hiring, interviews, NFL, footballCynics may ask how a woman can coach football when they’ve never played. To them I say that some of the best male coaches never played the game either. It needs to be less about gender and more about qualifications and ability to perform the job.

At the inaugural 2016 Women’s Summit, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced expansion of the Rooney Rule, requiring at least one female be interviewed for vacancies inside the NFL headquarters.

Ex-Bills coach Rex Ryan then made Katherine Smith the NFL’s first female on an NFL coaching staff. Smith was fired from the position following Ryan’s dismissal at the end of the 2016 season.

The Rooney Rule

The Rooney Rule, named after former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, is an NFL policy requiring league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.

NFL, National Football League, logoIt was established in 2003, and variations of the rule are in place in other industries.  Thirteen years after it was put in place the league added the requirement to interview female candidates, but only for jobs at the NFL office.

Its main goal is to make sure the league always has a list of minority head coaches around the NFL. Unfortunately, the rule only requires teams to offer interviews to minority candidates, skirting the actual hiring. Critics claim NFL teams check their boxes by bringing in minority candidates for ‘token interviews’ with no intention of hiring them.

The Boys Club

The league claims it wants to hire women into football-involved jobs. That may be due to the Rooney Rule, but it could also be linked to fan and viewer statistics.

Football Fab Four, Jane Goodell, Virginia McCaskey, Patricia Rooney, Norma Hunt

Football’s Fab Four

Then there’s Ray Rice. The league’s reputation took a serious hit when it gave a slap on the wrist to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. In 2014, Rice hit his fiancée in the face hard enough to knock her out and was videotaped dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator. Bad press is bad press.

Rice was arrested as a result and sent to a domestic violence diversion program. The NFL suspended him for two games. 

The Fab Four of Football

The NFL Film A Lifetime of Sundays, is a documentary that shines a light on four iconic women team owners who play an integral part in the NFL.

In the film, Virginia McCaskey (Chicago Bears), Martha Ford (Detroit Lions), Patricia Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), and Norma Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs) appear in a rock-star panel moderated by Jane Goodell.

Women are changing the face of football but when any woman breaks a barrier, I am reminded of Sally Ride, the first female astronaut.  When asked how it felt to be making history as the first woman in space she responded, “History will be made when no one notices the gender.”

But when you are the first woman in an industry led by men, a man has to open the door.

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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