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NFL tabs Sam Rapoport to help open job ‘pipeline’ for women at team level

The NFL has created a position to address the lack of women in coaching and scouting roles at the team level and named former women’s football pro tackle player Sam Rapoport as director of football development.

Rapoport’s role will be to identify women who are knowledgeable about the game and train them, and to create a space for those women in the social networks that often lead to jobs in football.

“My role is to create programming to show them that the pipeline is open to them,” Rapoport said Tuesday, “and create that pipeline for females to enter into positions that were traditionally held by men.”

Opportunities for women and minorities have been a focus for the NFL in the past year. The league’s insularity was exposed during the crisis surrounding Ray Rice’s domestic violence suspension. Last winter, women in the front office planned a women’s summit that was held during the Super Bowl. There, commissioner Roger Goodell announced the NFL front office was creating a Rooney Rule for women in front-office jobs, meaning that for every managerial position and higher, a woman would be interviewed before a hire is made.

With 52.6 million women viewing the Super Bowl this past February, according to the NFL, the league wants to expand opportunities for women in, for example, officiating and as athletic trainers.

“In such a strategic hire as this, we needed to have an individual that is passionate and knowledgeable in this space,” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent said. “Sam is an excellent fit.”

Currently, 30 percent of the NFL’s front-office employees are women. Football operations jobs are a different story. Sarah Thomas became the first woman hired as a full-time referee last year, and Kathryn Smith is a full-time quality-control coach for the Bills.

Rapoport, as a former player, is plugged into a network of women who have played the game known as professional women’s football even though players generally don’t get paid to play. Jen Welter, the first woman to coach in the NFL through a coaching internship with the Arizona Cardinals, had a background in women’s tackle and later played and coached men. Similarly, the NFL wants to mine that talent and train women for possible jobs in coaching and scouting.

“Playing tackle football obviously is not a prerequisite to being an excellent coach,” Rapoport said. “Adam Gase coaches the Dolphins and never played (in college or the NFL), and there are others. It’s not a prerequisite, but in order to be a good coach, you have to have a general knowledge of football and you have to be able to relay that info in a coherent way to players. And, to me, that translates to male or female. Do you know your stuff, and are you able to relay that in a coherent way?”

Connecting qualified women with NFL teams may be a bigger challenge. Rapoport has been calling general managers and owners to set up a committee on gender inclusion. With just two months on the job, she is in the early stages, but the goal is to create connections that can lead to jobs in a field where many hires are based on previous relationships in men’s football.

“That’s how any job — not just football, but any job that’s a prestigious job — is acquired,” Rapoport said. “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.”

Rapoport played flag and touch football growing up in Canada and was a member of the Canadian national flag team. She has worked in football since 2003, first with a marketing internship with the NFL and later developing a national flag football program for girls during her six years with USA Football.

In 2003, as a quarterback for the Montreal Blitz, Rapoport applied for her NFL internship by sending her résumé along with photo of herself in pads and a football. She wrote on the football with a Sharpie, “What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?”

She got the internship.

“I was told it stood out among the other applicants,” Rapoport said.

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