Written by Joe Callaghan
In her very hectic life, these were probably the most hectic days of her year.
It was late February 2020 and Sam Rapoport was spearheading the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum, then in its fourth year. The brainchild of Rapoport — the league’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion — again coincided with the NFL combine. But more important, this get-together in Indianapolis was taking place in the aftermath of a seminal first.
Weeks earlier, Katie Sowers, offensive assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, had made history as the first woman to coach at a Super Bowl. For Rapoport, a Canadian who has made it something of a mission to revolutionize America’s game and a woman’s place in it, Sowers’ feat marked a major milestone. Such is her nature, she needed reminding to stop and savour it.
“It’s kind of football culture to be on to the next success,” Rapoport told the Star this week. “But last year at the forum, a friend of mine was telling me to ‘take a deep breath, close your eyes and take it all in for a second.’ So yeah … I have been practising that.”
Good thing she’s been practising. The deep breaths are coming thick and fast now.
The friend who dished out the reminder last year was Maral Javadifar. Next Sunday at Super Bowl LV as the world watches Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the champion Kansas City Chiefs, Javadifar, Tampa’s assistant strength and conditioning coach, will follow the trail Sowers blazed. She won’t be alone.
With assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust alongside her on head coach Bruce Arians’ ultra-diverse staff (all four co-ordinators are Black), the Bucs’ history is not so much a first but a second: two female coaches on a Super Bowl sideline. That same night, referee Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to officiate in the game that stops America.
All of this comes at the end of a post-season where six of the eight teams in the divisional round had female coaches on the sidelines. Just this week, the Washington Football Team promoted Jennifer King to assistant running backs coach, making her the first Black female assistant in the league. Milestones upon milestones, piling up.
“They’re breaking ground,” said Rapoport — Ottawa born, bred and proud, but based in the U.S. since a now legendary pitch earned her an NFL internship in 2003 (more on that later). “What those firsts will serve to do really is inspire the next generation. So our pipeline only grows that much larger. Every woman and every person who’s carrying a torch, who’s the first, has a couple more rocks in their backpack than other people. But what they’re doing is absolutely fantastic.
“We’re seeing many firsts back-to-back. That can be attributed to the fact that we created a program to intentionally broaden the talent pool that could get a coaching job or a scouting job. And when you’re intentional with your diversity, equity, inclusion efforts and say, ‘We are doing this,’ you’re more likely to see progress more quickly. We’re hoping for many more firsts — so we can move on to the second, third and fourth.”
Rapoport’s successes come in a time of wider progress, of pushing back preconceptions.
In November alone, Kim Ng became the first female general manager of a major professional men’s team in the United States with the Miami Marlins, kicker Sarah Fuller the first woman to play in a major conference college football game, and Kamala Harris the first female vice-president of the U.S.
Big, heralded wins. Enough shattered glass ceiling analogies to keep cleanup crews busy for life. Normalization, though, is Rapoport’s mantra, what she craves the most.
The NFL’s fan base is almost 50 per cent female. Making its front offices and sidelines as representative is not an abnormal aim. Rapoport and Venessa Hutchinson, the NFL’s senior manager of football development and in Rapoport’s eyes “a visionary,” want the forum — which connects women who have entry-level roles at the college level to NFL coaches and executives — to be their vehicle for normalization. Since its inception in 2017, the same year People magazine named Rapoport one of its 25 Women Changing the World, 118 attendees have secured full-time positions or internships.
“I like calling Sam and Venessa our bridge to the league. They were our link, our bridge-builders,” Andie Gosper, who attended the 2019 forum, told the Star. “Right off the bat, you walk in, Sam was there. She knew everybody’s names. She was awesome, just creating a great environment. You felt like you belonged there.”
Gosper did indeed belong. Rapoport connected her with the Buffalo Bills, where she has been a scouting intern the past two seasons.
“Sam’s advice, it’s basically just be yourself. This is the environment where we got you in front of them, and just do your thing and show them what you can do.”
There are, of course, concerns.
Pro sports, much like the corporate world and society at large, love to trumpet steps forward in times when there are pushes for social progress yet promptly take a couple of steps back when the light dims. Rapoport is also all too aware that even when they are finally elevated, under-represented and minority candidates “don’t have that same privilege of failure that certain groups of people have.”
The NFL’s relationship with women can’t help but be somewhat viewed through the prism of how it has handled domestic violence incidents involving players. The Ray Rice case was seven years ago and was supposed to have been the nadir. But there has been enough evidence to show the league still has a long way to go to earn trust on that front.
In terms of what’s within her control, the same “just go do it” approach that Rapoport preached to Gosper and Co. is one that has served her well. It’s in her upbringing, maybe even her blood. As is football.
“I certainly remember my first football game,” said the 39-year-old Rapoport, “because it was with my father. He was watching ‘Monday Night Football’ — Cowboys-Dolphins. I can’t even remember what year, 1988 or 1989. I just started asking him a lot of questions. That was it.
“But growing up in Canada, you know, I played girls football in junior high school, in high school, I played female professional soccer and football. It was never weird in Canada for a girl or a woman to be playing football, right? So it wasn’t abnormal to me. I think growing up in that type of culture that Canada had (was a positive influence).”
Rapoport’s on-field career (she was, unsurprisingly, quarterback) progressed from school to the Ottawa Nepean Touch Football League, flag football at McGill University, the upstart pro Independent Women’s Football League and even the Canadian women’s flag football team.
She and her wife welcomed a baby boy two years ago, so her equipment is in storage for now.
“Life got a little crazy! I call myself semi-retired. I’m not hanging the cleats up yet, but I haven’t played in a while other than throwing a foam football in the basement with my son.”
Off-field football demands take up enough time now anyway. It’s impossible to chat with Rapoport and not bring up how she first got her foot in the NFL door. She calls it cheesy, gimmicky even. Maybe so, but it was inspired, too.
She applied for a summer internship in 2003 and, hoping to stand out, taped her resumé to a football with the message “What other quarterback could accurately deliver a ball 386 miles?”
It worked. Eighteen years on, she smiles and says her life’s work now is to make sure no under-represented candidate has to pull something similar to get their break. But what if they wanted to? How, for instance, would the 2021 version of Rapoport try to get the league’s attention?
“Wow, I don’t know if I have the answer,” she laughed. “I’ve never been asked that question. That’s a big first.”
She promised to think on it. No doubt she will. Firsts, after all, are Rapoport’s thing. Increasingly, the seconds, thirds and fourths are, too.