Women in the NFL: The revolution is underway
The day will come when a significant number of NFL positions are not only filled by women, but such hires are touted as a “next” rather than a “first.”
At least that’s how Samantha Rapoport sees it.
As part of her role as the NFL’s director of football development, Rapoport is tasked with helping ensure females are afforded chances to prosper at all levels in a male-dominated league. The groundbreaking advancements of women in scouting, coaching and officiating this offseason have Rapoport feeling bullish about the progress made in her first full year on the job.
“We’ve received resounding support from both the league office and club level,” Rapoport told Sporting News in a recent telephone interview. “If there are people here who don’t believe in women in football, I sure have not come across them.”
By the NFL’s count, 55 women are now working for teams in football operations. This includes what will be a record-high four female coaching interns in NFL training camps — Odessa Jenkins (Atlanta), Phoebe Schecter (Buffalo), Katie Sowers (San Francisco) and Collette Smith (New York Jets).
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Outside of team settings, long-time team executive Dawn Aponte was recently hired by the league office to fill a newly created position as Chief Administrator of Football Operations. Terri Valenti also became the first woman hired as an instant replay booth assistant.
Rapoport said she has received calls from teams this offseason asking her for qualified applicants for vacancies. The list she has built comes largely from participants in the Women’s Career in Football Forum that Rapoport created.
Samantha Rapoport at the 2017 Pro Bowl in Orlando takes a photo with 220 female tackle football players who attended the Women’s Careers in Football Forum.
One of the speakers at this year’s event was Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, who has proven a strong NFL advocate for female advancement.
“Kim shared at the forum that female resumes don’t come across her desk for football operations jobs,” Rapoport said. “She explained that not every job is about coaching or scouting. There’s equipment manager, video, officiating and analytic opportunities among others.”
Nineteen of the 220 women who attended the summit have landed football-related internships or jobs at the high school, college and pro levels. Others are putting themselves in positions to potentially secure similar opportunities by participating in USA Football coaching certification programs and scouting academies.
“A lot of women have applied for jobs and didn’t get them,” Rapoport said. “That speaks to the person who’s best available being hired.
“Not everyone is going to be the best. But if you include the whole pool of candidates in the hiring process, you’re going to land on women who are best qualified for the job.”
That’s how the Minnesota Vikings unearthed Kelly Kleine, who was recently promoted to college scouting coordinator. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told Sporting News that he initially hired Kleine to a full-time position because she was “twice as good” as some of Minnesota’s other male interns despite her lack of playing experience.
Whether coincidental or not, women began rising in the NFL ranks in 2015 following the league’s mishandling of Ray Rice’s domestic violence case and the subsequent fallout. Sarah Thomas and Jen Welter (Arizona) became the NFL’s first full-time officiating crew member and coaching intern, respectively.
At the inaugural 2016 Women’s Summit, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced expansion of the “Rooney Rule” to require at least one female is interviewed for vacancies inside league headquarters. Ex-Bills head coach Rex Ryan then made Katherine Smith the NFL’s first female on an NFL coaching staff last year by adding her as an assistant on special teams. Smith was fired from the position along with other members of Ryan’s staff following his dismissal at the end of the 2016 season.
While those hires spurred headlines highlighting the strides women were making, they also generated extra pressure and attention for those involved.
“What we don’t want is the spotlight on one female and her feeling it rests on her shoulders for women to succeed or fail,” Rapoport said. “That really is bad.”
Roger Goodell and Samantha Rapoport at the NFL commissioner’s annual Bronxville flag football game in Bronxville, NY. in 2016 (Photo: Mark Greenberg)
Another challenge that comes with introducing more females into football operations is the possibility of sexual harassment. However, Rapoport says she hasn’t seen or heard evidence of that happening from her time in the NFL and conversations with female peers.
“If there is harassment, it would be dealt with by the human resource department,” she said. “In my experience, the NFL has been an absolutely incredibly open, welcoming place to work.”
Rapoport, though, says she is sometimes asked by outsiders “what qualities women possess that allow them to be beneficial to NFL culture.”
“One reason is women make up a big portion of the fan base,” Rapoport said. “They love football and some now play football. Why shouldn’t they work in it?”
Rapoport allows that opportunities in personnel evaluation are more readily available than in the permanent coaching ranks. That imbalance may gradually shrink as female football leagues at both the amateur and professional levels grow.
“We see (scouting) as an easier opportunity for females to break into football ops,” Rapoport said. “Coaching is more difficult because of the experience necessary, but we’re planting the seeds right now.”
Rapoport speaks from experience — and the heart.
Now 36, Rapoport fell in love with football as a 12-year-old in Ottawa after she joined a female youth team and was inserted at quarterback despite initially wanting to play wide receiver.
Rapoport became a member of Canadian national women’s team before she branched into jobs with the NFL and USA Football, which is America’s national governing body for the sport.
Samantha Rapoport during her first season playing tackle football (2002) in Montreal, Quebec
During her six-year stint at USA Football, Rapoport spearheaded the effort to create a flag-football league framework for girls. More than 20,000 are now currently participating nationwide, with five states even sponsoring high school championships.
Rapoport hopes the program establishes the groundwork that can help others fulfill their own pigskin dreams.
“The game has afforded me everything — all my friends, my wife, an incredible relationship with my father before he died,” Rapoport said. “It’s an absolutely beautiful sport.
“One of the more remarkable things, too, is how it brings our country together in times when we’re seemingly so polarized (politically). One of the things the majority of the country agrees upon is that football is phenomenal. I wanted to be a part of that.”
As reflected by the NFL’s female revolution, Rapoport isn’t the only woman who feels that way.