Gillian R. Brassil and Kevin Draper – The football pioneers arrived quickly over the past year: the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl, the first woman chosen to officiate a Super Bowl, the first Black woman to be named a full-time coach in the NFL.
They can’t wait to have a lot more company.
“What is really going to excite me is when this is no longer aberrational or when this is no longer something that’s noteworthy,” said Amy Trask, who in 1997 became the Oakland Raiders’ chief executive and the first woman of that rank in the NFL. Few have followed in similar roles.
The coaching ranks took much longer to welcome women — until 2015. Eight female coaches were on NFL staffs this season, the first time there had ever been more than two women coaching simultaneously in the league, according to The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which tracks hiring across a variety of roles in five major sports.
Other professional sports had groundbreaking moments, as well, in the past year. The Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as MLB’s first female general manager and Becky Hammon became the first woman to serve as a head coach in an NBA game. But the ascent of women to top sports jobs remains an aberration and not the norm, as it is for men to lead many women’s professional and college teams.
Jen Welter, the first female to coach in the NFL, said that she initially turned down her first opportunity to coach a men’s team — in the Champions Indoor Football league — because she worried about feeling isolated.
“I was a highly decorated women’s player — two gold medals, an eight-time Pro Bowler — also had a master’s degree in sports psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology, and my instinct was, ‘no,’ because there were no women,” Welter said recently in a telephone interview. “Representation matters.”
Callie Brownson, chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns, said players were unfazed when she had to fill in as coach of the tight ends for two games this season and the wide receivers for one, when the full-time coaches for those positions were out on paternity leave or placed on the COVID-19 reserve list.
“I remember walking up to the tight ends at practice on Wednesday and saying, ‘Hey, just so you guys know, I got you guys this weekend, I got you on game day,’” she recalled in a phone interview. “And it didn’t faze them at all, like: ‘Cool, OK, great, looking forward to it, let’s roll.’ That was powerful to me as a woman.”
But, Brownson said, she has encountered resistance elsewhere. She recalled that at least one job interview felt like “checking a box,” and said that she had heard insulting quips — including “It’s funny to hear a woman talk about routes” — from men inside and outside the game.
Like Trask, Brownson said: “I look forward to the days where we stop talking about how ‘she’s the first this’ and we’ve accomplished all those things, and women can just naturally fit into these coaching roles, scouting roles and operational roles.”
Trask, who left the Raiders in 2013 after nearly 30 years in various jobs with the franchise and now serves as an analyst for CBS, recalled only a few moments when people questioned her role because of her gender.
Once, she said, a reporter called out to Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, at the end of a long practice: “Hey Gene, what’s it like having a girl on the team?”
Trask recalled that Upshaw, who became the longtime leader of the NFL players’ union, spun around and replied: “She’s not a girl. She’s a Raider.”
Al Davis, the Raiders’ former team owner who hired Trask, also hired Tom Flores, the league’s first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl, and Art Shell, the first African American head coach in the NFL since the 1920s.
“This was someone who hired without regard to race, gender or any other individuality, which has no bearing on whether someone can do a job,” Trask said of Davis, who initially hired her as an intern in 1983, when the team was based in Los Angeles and she was a law student who cold-called the Raiders’ headquarters, seeking a job. “And he was doing this decades and decades before this was discussed as a subject within the football world, the sports world and much of the world in general.”
Mold-breaking employees seem to be concentrated in certain organizations, such as the Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl on Sunday. The Bucs will have two female coaches on the field — Lori Locust, a defensive line assistant, and Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach — just a year after the San Francisco 49ers’ Katie Sowers became the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl. Also Sunday, Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to officiate the title game.
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who made history by hiring Welter as an intern for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, also has the only staff in the NFL on which the offensive and defensive coordinators are both Black.
The league itself has pushed a number of diversity initiatives aimed at getting women and people of color into coaching positions over the years, including the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which started in 1987, and the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, which began in 2017. Most of the NFL’s female coaches were brought in through one of those programs.
Some, like Jennifer King — recently promoted by the Washington Football Team to become the first Black woman to be a full-time coach in the league — have been supported financially by the Scott Pioli & Family Fund for Women Football Coaches and Scouts, named after the former longtime front office executive, and administered by the Women’s Sports Foundation.
These pipelines have helped bring the handful of women coaching in the league together.
“We support each other unconditionally,” said Locust of the Buccaneers. “We may talk a little bit of trash — just a little bit while we’re playing one another — but it never gets malicious.”
Though the women hope their ranks keep expanding, the limited racial diversity in the league’s coaching ranks suggests a possibility of backsliding. The highest number of nonwhite NFL head coaches at any given time has been eight — last reached in 2018, matching the current total of women with coaching jobs.
Now, in a league in which about 70% of the players are Black, only three head coaches are, and only two others meet the NFL’s standard for diversity hiring. The NFL did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.
Yet as women in the NFL hope for the days when they are no longer groundbreakers, they appreciate the progress that this weekend represents. Thomas, the Super Bowl official, was part of the NFL’s first pregame handshake involving two women: Her first game — a preseason matchup in 2015 — was also Welter’s debut with the Cardinals.
“I always think about that handshake as basically like a deal or a promise,” Welter said recently, “that this is going to continue, that more women will have opportunities to have that handshake.”
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