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.
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.
|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.
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.”
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.
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.
The league rules and collective bargaining agreements never contemplated having a WNBA player also working as an NBA coach. We’re glad to be the first and the rules need to change. Kristi is a critical member of our family at Monumental Sports. https://t.co/4g0wpnxRoi
— Ted Leonsis (@TedLeonsis) January 1, 2019
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.
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.”