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CSC Editorial: Are we there yet? Revisiting women’s roles in today’s NFL

There are more women working in the NFL than ever before, but a recent study shows cronyism still reigns supreme.

NFL: JUL 30 Buccaneers Training Camp Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article about female inclusion in the NFL. At the time, there was one female referee, two female coaches, three female team physicians, and seven female team owners. Roughly 30% of front office positions were held by women, but that percentage rate had a precipitous drop off at the operational level.

Unsurprisingly, the NFL received a 74% C grade for gender hiring practices in the 2018 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card. Because the titles of CEO/president and team vice presidents were added to the 2020 NFL Racial and Gender Report Card, the NFL’s grade actually decreased a percentage point to reflect a 73% C grade in gender hiring practices this year.

One reason women have not been able to shatter the glass ceiling of operational NFL positions is that many of them have not had the opportunities men have had to play football at different levels while building relationships with coaches, agents, and front office personnel along the way.

That’s why the NFL finally started hosting the annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum. This year, 40 women, three quarters of which were women of color, were invited to participate in a forum with a panel of guests including, among others, three team owners, seven head coaches, seven GMs and female assistant coaches Jennifer King and recent Super Bowl LV Champion Lori Locust.

King is the first Black female full-time assistant coach to Washington’s head coach Ron Rivera. She played tackle football from 2006 to 2019, but it should also be noted that many of the coaches in the NFL haven’t even played the game at that high a level or for that long themselves.

One of the most respected coaches in the NFL, Bill Belichick, was better at lacrosse in high school before playing a little tight end and center at NCAA Division III Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut; not exactly a powerhouse program. There’s something else, however, that Belichick has in common with nine out of 32 current NFL head coaches as well as 63 current NFL coordinators and position coaches...genes.

Those nine head coaches along with 63 coordinators and position coaches were biologically related or related through marriage to a current or former NFL coach. Belichick was named after his godfather, College Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Edwards. His father, who was an assistant football coach at the US Naval Academy, taught Bill how to break down game film.

So, a good ole boy system that claims to be a meritocracy is more than a third made up of family members of current or former employees, and most of them are white and male. Women who are passionate about football, and want to get involved, know this and are finding ways to catch up with generations of white male privilege.

“I’m a big proponent on clinics,” Locust said. “I’m a big proponent on calling your local high school and seeing if somebody will allow you to sit in and watch film and teach you how to break down film and teach you some of the concepts and the things that will start to make sense to you.

“Overall, it’s an amazingly violent chess game. And if you can understand the ‘if this then that’ type of mentality, if you have the ability to see it as a big picture and be able to break it back down to a very granular level, and you have the ability to communicate and teach and you have a passion for it... don’t worry about the fact that you didn’t get an opportunity to play or the fact that you’re a female. Speak on what you know, take in as much as you can, learn from whoever you can, and you’ll form your own style.”

The Buccaneers were the only NFL team to employ two female coaches this past season. Assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar not only helped take their team to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, they were integral in helping the team achieve its second Super Bowl Championship.

The Bucs’ head coach, Bruce Arians, was the first NFL head coach to hire a female when he hired Jennifer Welter as an assistant coaching intern in July 2015 when he was with the Arizona Cardinals. Because Arians believed football coaches were glorified school teachers, he knew that all women needed to succeed in the NFL was simply the opportunity to coach.

“Someone asked me, ‘Can women coach?’” he said. “Hell, yeah. I’ve even seen it. It’s just getting opportunities.

“Our linebackers went straight to Jen, because she had a different way of teaching, and the players in Birmingham (where Locust was an assistant coach with the Iron of the Alliance of American Football), they absolutely loved (Locust) as a coach,” Arians said. “Every NFL player is going to look you and say, ‘How can you make me better?’ If you have an answer, you’re in. If you can’t answer the question, you don’t belong there, anyway.”

Arians has noticed how effective his female coaches are at teaching and communicating schemes to the players; but he has also grown tired of answering questions about his female hires and yearns for a day when the media no longer fixates on female hirings as they slowly become the norm. After becoming the first coach to hire two women to his Bucs staff, Arians didn’t split hairs while speaking on their experience and qualifications.

Well, now that Locust and Javadifar are Super Bowl Champions, I don’t think anyone in the Bucs organization would ever think to fire them. If anything, they both deserve raises and extensions.

I’ve respected Arians for a long time and actually thought he might get the kind of production out of Jameis Winston he was able to get from Tom Brady a year later. At first, it seems ironic that it took a white male to finally hire female coaches in the NFL, but if you look at the NFL coaching racial and gender makeup, there are not many others with the same power to do it.

Within the Saints organization, for instance, their front office and operational personnel are overwhelmingly male and for the most part, white as well. Besides owner Gayle Benson, who inherited her stake in the franchise, there is not much female representation beyond “Executive Assistant”.

In fact, four of the five top ranking female executives within the Saints organization have those two words within their titles. I’m sure these women are paid pretty well, but let’s be honest, they are glorified personal assistant/secretaries.

Of the seven Saints senior executives, one female, Vicky Neumeyer, is listed last as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel. She, along with Matthew Sharpe, appear to be the only licensed attorneys in the front office.

There are no women employed in player personnel, scouting, or player engagement. Of the 17 possible athletic training and medical positions, only two are held by women.

Jamie Meeks is the Saints Director of Sports Nutrition and Keira Lathrop is on the training staff. None of the five team physicians are female. Of the 15 other non-operational departments in the Saints organization, only three are headed by women: Marketing (Jen Martindale), Production (Shaneika Dabney-Henderson), and Legal (Vicky Neumeyer).

But now that the seal has been broken, we are still waiting for the flood of talent that anxiously awaits while, at the same time, studying, grinding, and preparing to take those jobs previously occupied by the crownies whose main prior qualification was usually playing for, knowing, or being related to those they worked for.

As Arians said, “You could know all of the football in the world, but if you can’t teach it ... so, why not take a great teacher of any gender and let them help your players?” All women need is access to the talent pipeline and an opportunity to showcase their passion for the game of football.

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