Jen Welter Is the Feminist Hero Football Needs
Football is not particularly welcoming to women. Of course, to Jen Welter—the Atlanta Legends’ defensive specialist coach, not to mention the NFL’s first female coach when she worked with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015—that didn’t really matter. She was still going to play, coach, and support the game she loved. But the lack of inclusion persisted, and no area was more telling than sports gear. When Welter would go to buy cleats, there would be a plethora of options for men and often not a single pair fit for her female foot. Instead, she’d have to purchase a kid’s size or cleats designed for soccer. She’d get bruises from a too-high heel, and her foot would feel trapped in straps meant to support frames three times bigger than hers.
“As I played my whole career, it was always really evident that we weren’t meant to be here,” Welter says. “We weren’t on equal footing because we quite literally weren’t on equal footwear. How can we possibly say that men and women are equal if we don’t even have equal footwear?”
Welter is teaming up with Adidas to make football—and its footwear—more accessible to women. The two announced their partnership this week, which kicked off with a special-edition female football cleat made specifically for Welter in Adidas’s Speedfactory in Atlanta, Georgia. The shoe, called the AM4JEN, is a custom cleat created with functional detailing meant to support Welter. It’s also meant to serve as a blueprint for what a more mainstream female football cleat might look like.
“For Adidas to actually produce a cleat made for me really shows the power of the brand and the future of football for women,” says Welter. “It requires more specialization, and a real commitment to diversity and inclusion. We have the ability now to grow football for women, not just from my stubbornness [to do so], but from [Adidas’s] visibility, profile, and perspective.”
The cleat itself is made for her specific running and playing techniques, with details like a lower heel but a supportive sock liner. It’s also made to be more flexible, allowing her lighter frame to move quickly and not be weighed down by clunky shoes. Welter is all over the design of the shoe, too. Her signature quotes like “Kick Glass” and “Play Big, Dream Bigger” are written on the upper.
Although the cleat and a matching running shoe are custom for Welter, they mark the first step in Adidas’s foray into female football cleats. Additionally, the partnership includes hosting flag football camps for girls this year; the first one was in Atlanta before the 2019 Super Bowl. The camp, while technique- and skill-heavy, is also a way for Adidas to gather data on the specialized tendencies, needs, and abilities of female football players. Adidas will then use the data gathered from camps throughout the year to better inform the detailing and structure for a mainstream female cleat.
“First, we’re teaching girls that they belong here,” Welter says of the camps. “There’s no game they can’t play; there’s no field they can’t be in or on. Then, we want to develop their skills. We also really want to provide them with the visibility of female role models in the game. We’re looking at it full circle: The permission to play, the opportunity to do it, and the equipment to play in.”
The shoes, the camps, even the sport—it’s all symbolic. Welter is dedicated to teaching empowerment through football, but, like any good coach, she does it in a way that translates to real world knowledge and confidence.
“My favorite thing is to see girls who come out to play, all shy and hesitant,” she says. “All they’ve ever been told or seen is that football is not for girls. Those are the same girls I’ll see later going up to a group of boys and yell at them to break down. They’ll be so frustrated that they don’t know what a good breakdown is! Every little girl who thinks she can’t catch a pass, and then she learns she can go out on that same field and play that same game—to me, that changes everything.”