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.” 

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.