Hiring women coaches takes intentionality. Just ask the NFL

Jennifer King, an assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team
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Less than a decade ago, there were no women coaching in the NFL. 

In 2015, Jen Welter became the first woman to serve in an NFL coaching role when the Arizona Cardinals hired her to an intern position. The following year, Kathryn Smith became the NFL’s first full-time female coach when she was named special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills. 

In 2017, the New York Jets hired Collette Smith as a training camp intern to work with defensive backs, making her the first Black woman to coach for an NFL team. And earlier this year, Jennifer King was promoted to assistant running backs coach of the Washington football team, making her the first Black woman to serve as a full-time NFL coach. 

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Less than a decade after Welter paved a new path for women coaches, there will be a record 12 women coaches in the National Football League during the 2021 season, CNBC reported last month. This is the most women to coach in the NFL in a single season.

Progress still to be made in the NFL

While the NFL has taken major strides in just a few short years, we are still far from gender equity in the NFL and elsewhere in coaching. There are no women head coaches in the NFL and the majority of the NFL’s 32 teams still do not include a woman on the coaching staff.

Still, there are lessons that can be taken from the NFL and applied to other leagues, including professional women’s leagues. 

The first lesson? Intentionality!

The rise of women in the NFL isn’t an accident

Five years ago, the NFL established the Women’s Careers in Football Forum (WCFF) to inspire, educate, and connect women actively working in football to other college and NFL football operations positions. Over the course of two days, participants engage in a series of panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions covering everything from strength and conditioning, research and strategy, and team operations. 

“A big thing we found is that people who are getting their start in the league got their job because they played college football with someone who knows someone who knows someone and it’s just such a close bro network. Women don’t really have that and so this forum is an attempt to really bridge that gap,” Venessa Hutchinson, the NFL’s senior manager of football programming, told CNBC.

Of the 12 women coaching in the NFL this season, eight attended the WCFF (their names can be found in bold on the table below). Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, shared the names of the women coaching this NFL season with On Her Turf via email.

Coach

Current Role 

NFL Team 

Katie Sowers Assistant Running Back Coach Kansas City Chiefs
Jennifer King Assistant Running Back Coach  Washington Football Team
Callie Brownson Chief of Staff Cleveland Browns
Lo Locust Assistant Defensive Line Coach Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Maral Javadifar Strength & Conditioning Coach/Physical Therapist Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Emily Zaler Player Performance Assistant  Denver Broncos
Jada Gipson Defensive Back Intern/Linebackers Coach Cleveland Browns/Texas State 
Alex Hanna Receivers Intern/Defensive Quality Control Coach Cleveland Browns
Sophia Lewin Offensive Assistant Coach Buffalo Bills 
Tessa Grossman Intern /Graduate Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach  Atlanta Falcons/Illinois State
Heather Marini Intern/Quarterbacks Assistant Coach Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Brown University
Angellica Grayson Linebackers Intern Washington Football Team

In addition to helping create a coaching pipeline, the forum has also helped expand the number of women in front office jobs. Since the program began five years ago, 181 WCFF participants have landed football jobs, with 100 of those roles being in the NFL, the league reported to CNBC.

Assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Ross Cockrell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look on during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida.
Assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Ross Cockrell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look on during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Further, the invite-only forum ensures 50% of all participants are women of color. The most recent virtual event in late February welcomed 40 participants, 30 of whom – or 75% – were women of color. Additionally, in five years of the program 83% of the women hired from the annual WCFF are women of color. 

“You have to be very intentional and very purposeful to make sure that it’s not just white women who benefit from this type of diversity initiative,” Hutchinson said.

A two-day forum has its limitations. There is only so much additional coaching knowledge one can gain in 48 hours. However, the real value comes from the investment and networking opportunities participants receive. Generally speaking, people hire or recommend people they know for positions. If football coaches and executives don’t see women throughout their career, they are less likely to hire or recommend women for open roles. 

While this may explain the anemic numbers of women in dominantly male-represented sports, this does not explain a different issue: why aren’t more women coaching women’s teams?  

Why aren’t more former players being hired to coach women’s teams? 

The dearth of women coaching women’s teams has been previously documented. As it stands right now, only 10 women currently work as head coaches across the three major North American women’s sports leagues: the WNBA, NWSL, and NWHL.  

Of the 10 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams, two currently have women in head coaching positions (one of them serving in an interim capacity) amidst a season of coaching turmoil. Ahead of its seventh season, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has two women bench bosses across its six teams. In its 25th season, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has six women (including three former players) serving as head coaches.

So why are women underrepresented as coaches in women’s sports leagues?

Throughout much of the comparatively short history of these three women’s leagues, the player-to-coach pipeline hasn’t existed, though some notable changes have been made in recent years.

The WNBA’s landmark 2020 CBA includes an initiative dedicated to helping players get connected with coaching opportunities. Last month, the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a new free ‘B’ license course for former and current players.

Our mutual goal is to help the tremendous athletes in our league succeed both on and off the field and subsidizing the cost of this elite coaching education program will help us live up to that mission,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in the announcement. “We’re excited to see what our players accomplish with this certification in the future.”

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The partnership will pay for the costs associated with the course, including travel to Houston to sit for the exam. There is no direct cost associated with participating in the program.

Eliminating the cost barrier is a good practice in intentionality. However, the timing of the course makes it hard for active NWSL coaches or players to balance course work and their professional season, according to Orlando Pride defender and new mom Ali Krieger

“We women do a lot,” Krieger – who is also dipping her toe into broadcasting – told On Her Turf in a phone interview. 

Ali Krieger #11 (left) and Ashlyn Harris #24 (right) of the Orlando Pride hold their daughter Sloane after a game between Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride.
Ali Krieger #11 (left) and Ashlyn Harris #24 (right) of the Orlando Pride hold their daughter Sloane after a game between Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride in May 2021. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

During her career, Krieger has witnessed how tough it is for players like her to parlay decades of elite soccer experience into coaching careers. In the future, she hopes more opportunities – such as the coaching course grant – are accessible and take into account the high grind and moderate reward of women professional athletes, especially given the often low wages that players are paid. 

Can women’s leagues learn something from the NFL?

While there are barriers for players who already have coaching aspirations, there is also the issue that many players don’t see coaching as a potential opportunity.

That was true for much of Noelle Quinn‘s 12-year career in the WNBA. Coaching was not on her radar at all until she was approached to co-coach her former high school team while finishing out her pro career. 

“It wasn’t on my vision board. It wasn’t on my radar. When you grow up, you have male coaches,” Quinn, the new head coach of the Seattle Storm, told On Her Turf last month.

“I think in life when you see something and you see yourself within someone, you’re more apt to gravitate toward whatever that is,” Quinn continued.

The WNBA recently granted teams permission to add a fourth coach, so long as one of the coaches on staff is a former player. 

“Creating that, in general, was a great start,” Quinn said, noting that players can’t “know that they like coaching if they never had an opportunity or an experience.”

Even WNBA players who knew they were interested in coaching have run into barriers. In 2018, current Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver took an assistant coaching job with the Washington Wizards while playing for the Mystics. Yet, because both teams are owned by Monumental Sports Entertainment, Toliver had to accept significantly less money than her male counterparts. 

Toliver eventually ended up signing with the Los Angeles Sparks while remaining with the Wizards to avoid the conflict that led to her pay cut. Last month, Toliver confirmed she will be added to the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff for the upcoming NBA season. Toliver is glad to see more leagues are seeing value in having former women athletes on the coaching staff and hopes the WNBA can continue to create opportunities.

“You want to say it’s obvious, you know, but obviously, it’s not. So the fact that all these leagues are making steps in the right direction, I certainly hope and feel that the W would follow suit with that,” Toliver told On Her Turf after a practice with the Sparks. 

Phoenix Mercury v Seattle Storm
Seattle storm head coach Noelle Quinn talks with Jewell Loyd #24 during a game against the Phoenix Mercury on July 11, 2021 at the Angel of the Winds Arena, in Everett, Washington. (Photo by Josh Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Some coaches have also made a commitment to hiring women, including Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who has an assistant coaching staff that consists of three women, all former WNBA players. 

But it takes more than individual commitments.  

That is why the intentionality of the WCFF remains such a critical part of the program.

Unlike failed quota systems or the controversial Rooney Rule – which requires teams to interview at least two underrepresented candidates for any open job – the WCFF has proven results, especially for women of color. 

Perhaps because of the overhead costs associated with networking events like the WCFF – or even the NBA Basketball Operations Executive Program – many opportunities for women come on the men’s side of the game. Not to mention, better coaching salaries. Women coaching men’s teams – whether in the NFL or the NBA – is an important step towards gender equity in sports. Yet, what does that mean for women’s teams? 

“I’m not as interested in seeing women coaching men as I am women coaching women,” former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said on an episode of “On Her Turf at the Olympics” last month. “I think it is great that the NBA is hiring women to be on the sidelines, to be assistant coaches. But what I would love to see is those women coming back to the WNBA and being a head coach.” 

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.