The National Football League (NFL) may not be just a man’s world anymore.
Is there anything more manly than the National Football League (NFL)? Giant men demonstrating their physical prowess by knocking each other senseless seems like the stuff of testosterone-filled dreams. In this macho sport, there may have been a time when NFL could have stood for “Not For Ladies,” but that time has passed. In today’s world, women also love the gridiron game, and they’re increasingly becoming a part of it by taking on roles in this $14 billion industry.
New rules established by the NFL have helped open minds to the idea of women joining the game. In 2003, the organization instituted the Rooney Rule to encourage the hiring of minority candidates for head coaching and senior operations job openings. In 2016, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that a new Rooney Rule would be established requiring teams to interview women for executive positions, ensuring that women get their fair shot as well.
Women have been a part of the NFL for decades and they’re picking up steam. Here are five of the most influential women to work in the pigskin paradise.
Connie Carberg — First Female NFL Scout
When your father is a team doctor for the New York Jets, it’s inevitable that football is going to be a big part of your life. That was the case for Connie Carberg, whose childhood consisted of watching sports, playing sports, and occasional dinners with Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath. It may not have been the norm in the 1960s, but Connie could talk the game as well as any fan her age — regardless of gender. In 1974, with a new college degree in Home Economics, the New York Jets offered her a job as a secretary.
Her job had her making notes on game footage and players to such an extent that when the Jets needed to add another traveling scout to their team, General Manager Weeb Ewbank (yes, that was his name) proposed the unthinkable: Why not promote Connie to the position? She was practically already trained, after all.
She scouted college players and helped the Jets decide who to draft for several seasons. In 1979 she pointed them to Mark Gastineau who went on to be one of the best players in Jet’s history. Her stint as an NFL scout only lasted a few years, but it was a remarkable feat considering it was the mid-1970s.
Katie Blackburn — Executive Vice President, Cincinnati Bengals
Katie Blackburn is another woman with close ties to football — her father owns the Cincinnati Bengals. She got a law degree but found her career leading her into the world of sports. She started out in the front office of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1991 and worked her way up to eventually become the first female primary contract negotiator in the NFL. Her law degree and familiarity with contract negotiations prepared her for the job and she quickly gained a reputation as a tough-as-nails negotiator. Now she is the Executive VP of the team and is expected to grab the reins when the current president retires. She also is the chair of both the NFL’s Diversity Committee and the Super Bowl Advisory Committee.
Sarah Thomas — First Female Full-Time NFL Official
Sarah Thomas got her start in officiating like most do — she worked in high school games and eventually got the attention of Gerry Austin, Conference USA’s coordinator of officials. He invited Thomas to an officiating camp and realized that she had everything it takes to be a great football official. From there, she began working in the college ranks, and by 2009 she became the first woman to officiate an NCAA Division I bowl game when she took the field at Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. She went on to become part of the NFL’s officiating development camp and in 2015, she was hired as the NFL’s first female full-time official.
She was the end zone line judge when the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell pushed through the pile at the buzzer for a game-winning touchdown in 2015. It was a close play filled with drama, but Thomas called the score and replay confirmed it. It was her “Welcome to the NFL” moment.
Jen Welter — First Female Coach in a Professional Football League
Can NFL players really take direction from a female coach? Yes. Especially if that woman played rugby in college and football professionally. For Jen Welter, football is life and she’s broken a few barriers in her day. She was the first woman to play a “contact” position (not a punter or placekicker) in a men’s professional football league when she played for the Revolution. What did she play? Only running back. Wait, what? Yeah, she had three rushes for -1 yard, but that’s beside the point. They trusted her to run with the rock. That’s pretty impressive. She was also the first female coach in a men’s professional football league when she became the linebackers coach for the Texas Revolution in the Indoor Football League the next season.
In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals announced that they’d hired her to be an assistant coaching intern for the preseason. Tyrann Mathieu, the “Honey Badger,” took a liking to her after they exchanged stories about their nicknames (hers was “Spider Monkey). Her stint working in sports was short-lived since it was just a preseason internship, but she left a big mark.
Kathryn Smith — First Female Full-Time Coach in the NFL
Did Jen Welter open any doors? She must have, because in 2016 the Buffalo Bills announced that they’d hired Kathryn Smith as their full-time coach for special teams quality control. What does that role mean? Head Coach Rex Ryan told the Buffalo News that “A lot of that goes with the tough things. Doing all the computer stuff, doing all the drawings, all that type of stuff.” So, frankly, no one really knows.
Smith started working in sports in 2003. She worked gameday events as an intern with the New York Jets and then went on to become a college scouting intern in 2005. Smith held a couple of other positions before joining the Bills in 2015 as an administrative assistant. Her duties had her working closely with several of the coaches and when the time came, the organization decided she was the best fit for the new opening.
Are these the only women working in the NFL? By no means. Many women are working throughout the league in a variety of positions, and there have also been several female team owners. These five may be the most influential women in the game, though, and the lead blockers for many more women to gain meaningful roles in America’s favorite passion, NFL football. During Super Bowl Week in 2016, the NFL held the first NFL Women’s Summit with the intention of advancing women’s roles in sports, so look out for more women on the field and behind the scenes.
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