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Slowly but Surely, the Times Are Changing for Women in the NFL

Female inclusion across the NFL is improving, but there is still so far to go...

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL has always made a concerted effort to retain fans and increase profits. But as I examine its response to crises including domestic violence and workplace harassment, a crucial part of the NFL’s fan base and potential workforce has been either minimized or forgotten entirely, women.

As a female fan of the NFL, I’ve internally struggled for years about whether or not I should even be watching a sport that from top to bottom undervalues women in crucial ways. It’s very clear the NFL cares more about whether their players stand or kneel for the national anthem than if their players physically or sexually assault women.

Many players with checkered domestic violence histories have jobs in today’s NFL; while players without so much as a traffic ticket can’t get a job, despite their obvious ability, because they made a stand against systemic racial injustice. What does that teach today’s youth, or more, today’s men?

I can tell you exactly how it makes women feel. Unimportant. Unvalued. Unheard. Are we supposed to be thankful the only time we are even mentioned throughout the season is during the month of October when the NFL supports breast cancer awareness month? Thanks, but we’re worth mentioning every month, and we shouldn’t have to be suffering from a disease in our tits to garner the public’s coerced attention.

On the field and along the sidelines, there are few roles for women in the NFL. They can be sideline reporters, but they are usually limited to spreading rumors and reporting in game injuries or interesting storylines the league wants viewers to hear about.

They can be referees, but out of 21 full-time NFL referees there is only one female, Sarah Thomas. They can be photographers or camera operators, but I almost never see any women performing those jobs.

They can be team doctors. But in the entire NFL, there are only three women employed as team physicians: Dr. Leigh Ann Curl for the Baltimore Ravens, Dr. Nancy Gritter for the Carolina Panthers; and in 2016 Dr. Robin West was chosen as Co-Head Team Physician for Washington, because baby steps, people. She can’t possibly be qualified to be THE head physician. She must need a dude with whom to share the load.

Women can hold front office positions, but after a little digging, the same few names kept popping up. There’s Amy Trask who worked her way up from intern to the NFL’s first female CEO for the Raiders. When asked about what she missed since leaving the NFL for careers at CBS and BIG3, Trask replied, “I don’t miss NFL owners meetings. Nope, nope, nope.”

At her first owners’ meeting, Trask was asked by another executive to “fetch the coffee,” while at a different meeting, years later, another executive called her “girlie”. “I just laughed. I laughed aloud, loudly. At the silliness that a man in the then-20th century just called an executive from another club ‘girlie,” Trask said.

”Many women and men I respect have said to me that I should have chastised him for that. Well, you know what? I know that I would rather be yelled at, scolded, hollered at than I would be ignored or dismissed with laughter. And, frankly, I think laughing at him was far more effective than any speech I could have made. He certainly sat down very, very rapidly, and there was no more out of him.”

Dawn Aponte is another long lasting power player who in 2017 was named the NFL’s Chief Administrator of Football Operations, a new position, seemingly created just for her, that reports to Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Troy Vincent. Jeanne Bonk was promoted to Chief Operating Officer of the Chargers in 2016. If the length of their careers are combined, both women have over 52 years of NFL experience, yet they just recently ascended to the highest offices.

Perhaps the most powerful woman in the NFL is the Bengals Executive Vice President Katie Blackburn. Of course, she benefitted from the ultimate in NFL nepotism to get her career started. She is the daughter of Bengals owner Mike Brown and the granddaughter of Bengals co-founder and coach Paul Brown.

Today she sees a growing opportunity for women in the NFL. “If you look at where things are now, there are a lot more opportunities for women, and I absolutely expect it to continue to grow.”

“There are more opportunities for women to get in today at NFL teams, because there are bigger marketing staffs, there is an IT department, there is data analytics, and obviously there are opportunities also in scouting or even coaching. The more opportunities women have to get in will give them more of an opportunity to grow into other positions.”

When asked for her opinion on the extension of the Rooney Rule to gender with regard to executive positions, Blackburn bitingly confirms the rule shouldn’t have been needed in the first place.

“If the league office has a rule, hopefully it will be a positive, and I think it will work very well. But I hope that, even without a rule, individual teams implement the same strategy and look for the best candidates and interview a broad array of people—women, men, different ethnicities. Having a diverse group of people brings more perspectives and hopefully allows you to make your organization even stronger.”

No one understands this more than the 49ers Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel, Hannah Gordon. “To succeed, you need to have a diverse group of people. If you don’t have different perspectives, then you don’t have intellectual diversity. Without that, you can’t build the best team.”

That’s why Gordon has spearheaded the Denise DeBartolo York Fellowship which places a female fellow into a two month rotating internship among six different departments, where women have historically been underrepresented in sports.

“The hope there was that you bring in somebody and you expose them to these areas they might not have otherwise been exposed to in hopes that they can become a full-time employee at some point. You’re building a pipeline of talent in the areas where you don’t typically see a lot of women.”

I would like to mention that as of this writing, the 49ers are also the only NFL team to take the equal pay pledge. “Equity is not an issue in one industry;” Gordon reminds us, “it is an issue in the fabric of our culture and in our country and our world.”

Even with the entry level help of fellowships and internships, it’s still extremely hard for women to break into the NFL; especially when they aren’t related or married to an NFL owner. Martha Ford (Detroit Lions), Virginia Halas McCaskey (Chicago Bears), Amy Adams Strunk (Tennessee Titans) and Gayle Benson (New Orleans Saints and Pelicans) inherited their stakes. Kim Pegula (Buffalo Bills), Carol Davis (Oakland Raiders), and Christina Weiss Lurie (Philadelphia Eagles) married into theirs.

Others, like Jacqueline Davidson, started from the very bottom, much like Commissioner Roger Goodell. If you didn’t know, back in 1982, Goodell began his NFL career as an administrative intern in the league office in New York under then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

After watching the movie Jerry Maguire as a preteen, Davidson knew she wanted to be a part of the sports business world. She researched the NFL and different job opportunities associated with it. She applied to Cornell University Law School so she could intern at the NFL while getting her law degree. She began as a legal intern in 2004 with the NFL management council.

In 2015, she was promoted by the Jets to Director of Football Administration. She serves as the team’s lead negotiator of player contracts and is responsible for managing the team’s salary cap and budget, while also making sure the Jets are compliant with the NFL collective bargaining agreement.

Roughly 30% of the NFL’s front-office employees are women, but there is a precipitous drop off in female employees at the operational level. The NFL has recognized this, and in 2016, created a position for former Montreal Blitz quarterback and longtime marketing and operational intern, Sam Rapoport. She has played flag or tackle football since the age of 12 while always entertaining the dream of one day working for the NFL.

In 2003, along with her resume, Rapoport sent to the league headquarters a picture of herself in full pads as well as a football on which she had written, “What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?” She got the job and has served in the roles of Marketing Intern, Player Personnel Intern, Youth Football Assistant, NFL Youth Football Coordinator, Director, and later Senior Director of Football Development.

Rapoport’s leadership and innovation has only begun to crack open pandora’s box. After two years in this role, she has been instrumental in creating, developing, and marketing a more diverse talent pipeline that includes skilled and qualified women.

”That’s our biggest barrier. We didn’t grow up in the male tackle football world, so we don’t have a friend who is a coach, or, ‘I played for him, so he’ll recommend me for a job.’ That’s a reason this position exists, and that’s a big-time focus for me, just connecting owners and general managers to women who are very qualified and very passionate and ready to go.”

The glass ceiling is finally beginning to crack a little bit. The Buffalo Bills have hired two female coaches. The Minnesota Vikings have two female scouts and their first female scouting intern. In total, there are five female scouting interns across the league.

It’s not many, but as Stephanie Jackson, a 29 year old scouting intern for the Vikings reminds us, “It’s almost like a first to the punch thing. You see one team hire a woman, and then others will say, They must have something.” Women can bring something invaluable to the operational side of football; a different perspective.

“When you’re looking at a player,” Jackson continues, “most men would be like, What can he do on the field? Or if that player is having a bad season or bad go, you are always evaluating that player as a product. It’s just like something you put on the field. How can you tweak it; does it need new batteries?”

“Whereas women, we are so analytical, we want to know, What is this player thinking? Is this player having off-the-field issues at home? Is there something extra we need to do to help the player only focus on football? Viewing players as people as opposed to products, and a lot of time you get that with women. That’s a game-changer.”

Even the NFL’s first female scout from 1976-1980, Connie Carberg, has recognized the times are changing. “It has really opened up today,” she said. “I think scouting is even better for women, and less questionable because you can judge. It’s easy to judge. You can be male or female. You can be right or wrong, just like a male can.”

”I want women to see that it’s really possible and they can really do things without saying: ‘Hey, I’m a woman. I want it because I’m a woman,’” she continued. ”Just do it because you love it and you never know where it’s going to take you.”

But mostly, these women want an NFL where it’s normal to see a woman fulfilling many roles, and not just administrative ones. “I hope it’s not a headline when a female is hired. It’s just something that happens, and it’s not a surprise,” Katie Sowers, San Francisco 49ers coaching intern said.

If left up to Sam Rapoport, that’s exactly what she’s moving towards. “I would love for girls growing up in this country to believe that if they love the sport as much as I do, that they could be a part of it,” she says. “Our goal is to normalize females on the sidelines. That’s when we’ll know that we’ve scratched the surface and started to achieve something.”

For female fans of the NFL and football in general, these trends are encouraging. Yes, the faucet of equity is still turning at a trickle. But the expansion of professional roles for women in the NFL have got to be better than being an NFL cheerleader, right? As a fan, I sure hope so.