For women working in football, it’s a grind and a calling

Burke preparing for Notre Dame practice
C/O Kalleigh Burke

Kalleigh Burke was in sixth grade when she had a revelation. She was playing catch with her younger cousin in the backyard after watching YouTube videos and telling him she could help him train to play football. While practicing, she realized, “I really like doing this.”

About 10 years later, Burke became Notre Dame football’s student senior manager, where she was primarily responsible for working with the defensive line. During practice, she set up drills and stood in for the scout team in non-contact situations. Outside of practice, Burke handled equipment and gear. On game days, she was the ball person or helped with signal cards.

“Between that and school, I stay pretty busy,” said Burke, who studied Finance and Spanish before graduating this past spring.

One of Kalleigh Burke’s main responsibilities at Notre Dame was handling equipment and gear (c/o Kalleigh Burke)

In the midst of the NFL’s free agency buzz last March (and just one day after Tom Brady announced that he would return to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Burke was one of 45 women who participated in the NFL’s sixth-annual Women’s Career in Football Forum, which was created by Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s Senior Director of Diversity & Inclusion.

This year’s forum was held virtually and connected women around the country — 64% of whom were women of color — with leaders in professional football.

Over the course of two days, participants engaged in a series of panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions. Speakers included NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Jane Skinner Goodell, as well as three club owners, eight head coaches and seven general managers.

Most of the women invited work in entry-level football roles. The goal of the forum is to create a pipeline for women who want to work in the NFL so that there may one day be more women on the sidelines and in front office positions.

According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), women made up about 38.8% of the NFL league office roles, 25.3% of teams’ senior administration, and 1.5% of team assistant coaches last season.

While the Forum acts as an important stepping stone, the NFL is still working towards creating a safe and respectful work environment across the league. In early April, the attorneys general of six states wrote to Commissioner Goodell expressing concern over treatment of female employees in the league, including at its 32 member clubs. At the end of July, Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder testified before a congressional committee investigating the team’s history of workplace misconduct. Additionally, Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson was suspended 11 games and fined $5 million dollars after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct during massage appointments.

Since its inception in 2017, the NFL says the Forum has secured over 200 opportunities for women in the NFL and college football. Twenty-three teams have hired directly from the program. And last season, 12 female coaches worked for NFL teams, the most ever. Yet the majority of the league’s 32 teams still do not include a woman on the coaching staff.

This season, a record 15 women are serving in NFL coaching positions (six in full-season coaching roles). Twelve of the 15 participated in the Forum.

Women working as NFL coaches this season:

  • Angela Baker, New York Giants offensive assistant
  • Callie Brownson, Cleveland Browns Chief of Staff/Assistant WR coach
  • Maral Javadifar, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Strength and Conditioning coach
  • Jennifer King, Washington Commanders Assistant running backs coach
  • Autumn Lockwood, Philadelphia Eagles Strength and Conditioning seasonal associate
  • Lori Locust, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line assistant
  • Kaelyn Buskey, Baltimore Ravens Strength & Conditioning intern
  • Joan Cantonese, Atlanta Falcons fellow
  • Ashley Cornwell, Tennessee Titans fellow
  • Isabel Diaz, Washington Commanders fellow
  • Mickey Grace, Atlanta Falcons fellow
  • Lisa Horton, Cleveland Browns fellow
  • Connor Jo Lewis, Baltimore Ravens fellow
  • Sam Mullet, Buffalo Bills fellow
  • Amanda Ruller, Seattle Seahawks fellow

For these women, working in football isn’t about numbers; it is a calling. Each woman who wants to be on the sidelines or in a front office has a passion for the game and a village of people supporting them as they find their place in it.

Paving the way for women in the NFL

When Camille Wilson attended the Women’s Career in Football Forum in March, she was a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central University and the graduate assistant for student-athlete development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she was pursuing a Masters in Sports Administration. Since the Forum, Wilson has accepted a position as the Football Operations and Team Logistics Analyst for the Houston Texans.

She is also a self-described “busy-body.”

“That’s me in a nutshell. I’ve always been one that enjoys taking on a lot and enjoys being busy because when I’m not busy, I just can’t think.”

Camille Wilson worked as a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central University, where she helped student-athletes navigate their lives on and off the field. (c/o Camille Wilson)

Wilson grew up a competitive swimmer, tennis player and track athlete. As an undergrad at Agnes Scott College, Wilson says she struggled with understanding her identity beyond athletics. Now at 26 years old, Wilson enjoys helping athletes figure out who they are outside of their sport and within it.

Long before Wilson discovered her passion though, she knew she wanted to work in football.

“You know how in middle school and high school, Friday nights, you and your friends go out to dinner and you’re supposed to go to the high school game after that,” Wilson explains. “I would always go. However, when my friends were out standing in the stands cheering away, I was probably two rows over sitting down just staring at the game because I truly just loved the game. That’s all I cared about.”

At her swim meets, Wilson could be found in the corner on her phone watching football.

“Something about seeing a team collaborate with each other and seeing the camaraderie between so many different individuals, it was just really fascinating to me,” Wilson says. “That’s what I wanted to do was just watch and learn and understand. That’s what I continue to do.”

From the sidelines at the University of Michigan to the Minnesota Vikings

Milan Burgess played sports long before she knew she wanted to work in them.

Burgess was an elite gymnast growing up and began the sport at just two years old. Unfortunately, due to a torn ACL, Burgess had to medically retire from the sport at 17. But she credits everything to gymnastics and says that she is where she is today because of her refusal to give up.

“I have so many huge goals and I think that’s a testament to my athletic background,” Burgess said. “It was never enough for me just to win one medal. I was always thinking about the next thing ahead.”

Burgess’ love of sports came from her family. Her grandfather played professional baseball and her dad played football at the University of Michigan – the same school that her mother, sister and Milan herself eventually attended. Because of her upbringing and athletic background, sports always felt like an inevitable part of Burgess’ future.

Now at 25 years old, Burgess is a Team Operations Coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, the first woman to hold a full-time position in Team Operations in the history of the team. Though Burgess has many goals, she says her biggest is to be the general manager of an NFL team.

Milan Burgess works as a Team Operations Coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. (c/o Milan Burgess)

Friday Night Lights

As for Burke, her love of football remains tied to family. She is from a small town in Illinois called Murrayville, in which about 500 people live. Her dad was a Junior Football League coach when she was a kid and her brother and cousin play football.

“Small town football is really cool,” Burke says. “Especially at the high school level because you have a whole community that gets together and cheers for it. And for a lot of those people, that’s the most exciting time of the week.

“I think seeing how football can really bring people together is what made me fall in love with it at first.”

Because of her role at Notre Dame, Burke was able to invite her family to Notre Dame Stadium for games. Her father and brother attended almost every game last season On Senior Day, Burke invited her grandparents. Her grandma had only ever been to high school games.

“I’m blessed to be able to share that experience with some of the people at home and at the same time, represent them,” Burke said..

After graduating from Notre Dame this spring, Burke accepted a job as a graduate assistant coaching defense at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she will be on the sidelines once again this fall.

Breaking Barriers in the NFL

The goals of the women who participated in the Forum differ. Burke wants to be a head coach, Wilson a director of football operations and Burgess a GM. But they are all united in wanting to see more women in football.

“It was amazing to be around women who have the same like-minded goals who are driven and have that passion that I feel like I have,” Burke said. “Ultimately, the greatest part [of the Forum] was being around 45 other women who were super driven, wanted to be in football and getting to make some connections there.”

“Everyone’s grinding, no matter your title, no matter who you are,” Wilson said. “I think that the 44 other women that I’ve gotten to know a little bit more, I’m so excited for all of our futures because I know that our futures will be so bright.”

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Li Li Leung talks USA Gymnastics’ cultural transformation, challenges still to come and embracing her AAPI heritage

Head of USA Gymnastics Li Li Leung.
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Li Li Leung joined USA Gymnastics as president and CEO in March 2019, when the organization was reeling from the fallout of Larry Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse and the subsequent revelations of larger cultural issues within the sport. Since then, Leung has seen USAG through an ongoing transformation, one that hinges on the work of the survivors and staff around her, whom she is quick to credit. That evolution, as she calls it, has included instituting new norms and standards at all levels of the sport, particularly in matters related to athlete safety.

Among the notable USAG initiatives that Leung has brought to fruition is the Athlete Bill of Rights, established in December 2020 as a tool “to unite the full gymnastics community around a shared vision of behavioral expectations.” At the same time, USAG instituted a protest policy for national team members aimed at supporting athletes who choose to use their voice on public platforms. Both initiatives were among the first of their kind in sport.

Prior to joining USAG, Leung served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building and managing key partner relationships around the world. She continues to use that experience in her roles as vice chair of the National Governing Bodies Council of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s Executive Committee.

Leung, who began competing in gymnastics at age 7, was a member of the U.S. junior national training team and represented the U.S. at the 1988 Junior Pan American Games. She was a four-year member of the four-time Big 10 champion University of Michigan gymnastics team and was an NCAA Championships participant.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, On Her Turf sat down with Leung to talk about her journey with USAG, the challenges still to come and how being a member of the AAPI community has shaped the person she is today.

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This Q+A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Let’s start by talking about your journey since joining USA Gymnastics in 2019. What have the last four years been like for you?

Li Li Leung: This was just an incredible opportunity to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. And I really mean that because I started in the sport when I was 7 years old and did it for 15 years. It’s taught me all of these different skills that I apply to my daily life, both professional and personal. It feels a little bit like I’ve come full circle, and honestly, never in a million years did I think I would find myself in this role. … I joined at a time when it was a tumultuous time for the organization. It’s been just a little a little over four years now, and it has been an incredible journey — and believe it or not, I have enjoyed it. While it hasn’t been easy, I actually have enjoyed it, because I’ve been able to make it not just me. One thing that’s important to note is that — I had even said on my first interview with the board — it will take a village to accomplish what we need to accomplish. This is not a one-person job. And I was lucky enough to be able to bring on a leadership team that has been incredible, and also retain the staff that we have retained, as well as hire other new staff members. And it’s because of them and some really key volunteers that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do.

OHT: Can you talk a little more about this cultural transformation that the organization has experienced and your approach to tackling this all-encompassing change?

Leung: When I was interviewing for the position, I actually met every single board member. It was really critical to both sides that they felt that I matched the role and their needs and also I had to be confident in the board believing in the ultimate mission of the organization and what we wanted to achieve. So that the culture really does stem from the well – from the top down and everything in between as well. And when I was looking for leadership team, … one of the characteristics I was really looking for was they couldn’t have an ego. The job couldn’t be about themselves or about what they would personally get out of the role. It had to be about them believing in the bigger picture and believing in what we collectively wanted to achieve. I knew that we would only be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish if people were willing to roll up their sleeves and just do whatever needed to be done, so that was one of the key things in terms of having no ego.

Since 2018, we’ve turned over more than 70 percent of our staff. We’ve been able to retain the really key members of our staff, who have been critical to our success, but also have been able to really bring in new thinking, new blood, new perspectives. Because the other thing I was looking for when I was hiring for the leadership team was diversity in perspectives. That was critical because I did not want to be surrounded by “yes people.” I wanted to be surrounded by people who would be willing to have really robust conversations and engage in difficult conversations, because ultimately, you end up in a better place because of that.

In 2020, we reset our mission to be about building a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, with athletes who thrive in sport and in life. So we were no longer about developing technically superior gymnasts who perform well in gym. We reset our focus to be about helping set our athletes up for success with the skill sets that you learn in gymnastics, and when we come to the office each day, that’s what we’re thinking about. …

The other piece is we also know from a community standpoint that our national team coaches are the most visible representation (of USAG), and a lot of coaches model them. So we’ve been working really hard in terms of working on educating our national team coaches. We work with Positive Coaching Alliance to do educational training with them as well. And we also have introduced training specifically for young coaches coming in, because we know when they come in and they’re new, that they’re eager to learn, and that’s when you can start training and moving them in a way. So our thinking is with this top-down and bottom-up strategy, eventually the middle will meet.

OHT: You noted how the coaches can be some of the most visible representatives of USAG. Regarding the addition of 2008 Olympic silver medalists Chellsie Memmel (USAG technical lead) and Alicia Sacramone Quinn (USAG strategic lead), how have those women impacted the program?

Leung: The addition of Chellsie and Alicia has been fantastic. They have been phenomenal to work with, and the fact that they have firsthand experience of having gone through it themselves – that also gives them a very good idea of what they would change and what they wouldn’t change, at the same time. It has been a phenomenal addition to be able to have this perspective of firsthand, high-level, high-performing athletes to be able to lead our high-performance team. And the athletes are saying it as well. They’re saying, “We trust them; we feel confident in their decisions; we can relate to them” — all of those things that historically haven’t really happened before.

Then in terms of the athletes who are going to college and coming back to compete with USA Gymnastics – there are so many aspects that I think are great about this. One: It’s showing a lengthened career in a sport that historically has not been very long because it’s so demanding on the body. So that means that our athletes are physically healthier, as well, that they can train and compete at a high level for a longer period of time. It also means that they’re enjoying it more because they’re staying in the sport. From an emotional standpoint, they’re finding a lot more joy in the sport, and they’re talking about it, too. And we love the fact that they’re talking about it. We want them to talk about it, and we want them to have voices and feel open and free about sharing what they’re thinking about. I have to say I’ve been really enjoying seeing almost like — I’m not sure if I can go as far as a new era in the sport maybe — but just this evolution of the sport and the athletes changing in front of my eyes.

OHT: What do you consider now to still be the biggest challenge or obstacle for USAG?

Leung: There are a couple of big initiatives on the list. One is we want to build a training and wellness center where all of our disciplines will train under one roof. This is a long-term project, obviously, but my vision around it is that it will be the heart and hub of gymnastics in America. And while this is where national team athletes will ultimately train to some extent, it is going to be a welcoming place for athletes of all different disciplines and all different levels. We want it to be a place where young athletes can come through and see their role models training. We want this to be a place of education for our community and judges. We want to be able to run clinics there for all different levels. We just want this to be a gathering place of gymnastics and to be able to celebrate the sport there at the same time.

We’re also going to reset our foundation. There’s been the National Gymnastics Foundation, but we are going to reset it and basically be much more proactive on fundraising and development to grow the sport and also to raise more money for athletes in their training.

OHT: Turning to AAPI Heritage Month and being named to the 2023 Gold House A100 List (the A100 is named each May honoring 100 Asian Pacific leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year). What did that honor mean to you?

Leung: It was such an incredible honor to be recognized by them, and my fellow honorees — when I read the list, I thought to myself, “I don’t belong.” There are some incredible names on that list. But again, I go back to what I said earlier: I owe this honor to a lot of the other people who work [at USAG]. I think the really important thing to recognize is that this was not done by just me. It was done by a lot of other people who are on staff and who aren’t getting the accolades or the recognition. But it was an incredible experience to be, and I’m very, very touched and honored to be on that list.

OHT: How do you identify within the Asian American Pacific Islander community? Did you embrace your heritage growing up and how has that shaped who you are today?

Leung: So I’ll tell you a story that I’ve mentioned to other people recently. I grew up in a town called Ridgewood in Bergen County, New Jersey, and most of my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. When I was growing up, I wanted the name “Nancy Smith,” and I wanted blue eyes. I wanted to fit in. As a kid, you always want to fit in. Then when you get older and wizen up a little bit, you realize that it’s okay and it’s good to be different, that you can use that to your advantage. And so upon growing up, I realized that it’s pretty special to be Asian American and there are benefits to being Asian American, and you should embrace the fact that you are different. In fact, I recently lectured to a women-in-sports-business class, and one of the questions they asked me was about impostor syndrome. I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now, which is absolutely embrace who you are. Absolutely embrace your differences, because those ultimately are embedded advantages to who you are and make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. So that’s my philosophy now.

OHT: Do you or your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Leung: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a tradition, but in the Chinese culture, food is really important. Food is what brings people together. It’s a sign of respect, and that is the ultimate unifying language in a way. So when we do get together as a family, it’s really important for us to get together around a meal, because that’s when we share our stories. That’s when we connect with one another.

OHT: You might have just answered my next question, but I want to ask: What brings you joy about your heritage and culture?

Leung: It’s funny, I was actually at a conference last week and you were supposed to find someone you didn’t know in the conference and share a secret talent that you have. I shared that I can eat a lot more than most people think. Food is a really important part of our culture and in my upbringing and family.

OHT: Lastly, I wanted to ask, as we’ve seen an increase in hate-filled actions toward the AAPI community, what does supporting the AAPI community look like for you?

Leung: Well, I think kind of going back to my other answer, it’s just about embracing who you are and embracing your differences. I think part of it is being unafraid of it at the same time, which I know is really difficult. But if you’re going to truly embrace it, and then you can’t be afraid about embracing it at the same time.

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2023 Mizuho Americas Open: How to watch, who’s playing in inaugural LPGA event at Liberty National GC

Pajaree Anannarukarn of Thailand tees off on the eleventh hole during Day One of the HSBC Women's World Championship.
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The Statue of Liberty is the backdrop for this week’s inaugural Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The tournament boasts a theme of mentorship and education, and includes a girls’ 72-hole, modified Stableford tournament featuring 24 juniors to go along with the 72-hole stroke-play event for 120 LPGA professionals.

The field is led by seven of the top 10 players on the Rolex Rankings including world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Lydia Ko, No. 4 Lilia Vu and No. 5 Minjee Lee. Also teeing it up this week are the finalists from Sunday’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play, where Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn captured her second LPGA title with a 3-and-1 victory over Japan’s Ayaka Furue.

Michelle Wie West is serving as the tournament host, and she’ll be on hand to welcome fellow Stanford alum Rose Zhang, who’s fresh off her second straight NCAA individual title and turned professional just last week. Zhang will have her first go at an LPGA prize purse, which tops out at $2.75 million this week with the winner taking home $412,500.

How to watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open

You can watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, June 1: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Friday, June 2: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Saturday, June 3: 5-8 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Sunday, June 4: 4:30-5 p.m. ET (streaming only on Peacock); 5-7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock

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Who’s playing in the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open?

The 120-player field features seven of the top 10 players (and 16 of the top 25 player) on the Rolex Rankings:

  • No. 1 Jin Young Ko
  • No. 3 Lydia Ko
  • No. 4 Lilia Vu
  • No. 5 Minjee Lee
  • No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 8 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 9 Georgia Hall

Also in the field are 2023 winners Celine Boutier (LPGA Drive On Championship), Ruoning Yin (DIO Implant LA Open) and Grace Kim (LOTTE Championship), plus several sponsor exemptions including reigning NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang and her Stanford teammate Megha Ganne. Ganne, a native of Holmdel, N.J., finished T-21 at the recent NCAAs and is playing as an amateur. Joining them as an exemption is fellow Cardinal Mariah Stackhouse, who has conditional status on tour in 2023. Monday qualifiers include tour rookie Alexa Pano and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith.

Among the notable juniors expected to play are 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur winner Anna Davis, 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner Yana Wilson and 2022 U.S. Junior Girls’ runnerup Gianna Clemente. The 24 junior players were invited through their standings in the Rolex AJGA Rankings.

What’s the format for the Mizuho Americas Open?

The professionals will play a 72-hole stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 50 and ties after 36 holes. The 24 juniors will play a 72-hole, no-cut competition using the modified Stableford scoring format and a different yardage than the pros.

During the first two rounds, the AJGA players will all be paired together. During the final two rounds, one junior player will play with two LPGA pros with groupings based on scores. This unique format marks the first time the AJGA and LPGA have partnered to showcase junior and professional competitors playing together.

Stableford scoring refresher: “Stableford” is a scoring system that awards points for the number of strokes taken on each hole in relation to par, rather than simply counting strokes like in stroke play. Unlike in stroke play, where players want the lowest score, the goal in Stableford scoring is to have the highest score. Standard Stableford points values are:

  • 0 Points – Double bogey or worse (two strokes or more over par)
  • 1 Point – Bogey (one stroke over par)
  • 2 Points – Par
  • 3 Points – Birdie (one stroke under par)
  • 4 Points – Eagle (two strokes under par)
  • 5 Points – Albatross or double eagle (three strokes under par)
  • 6 Points – Condor (four strokes under par)

More about Liberty National Golf Club

Located on the shore of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, Liberty National Golf Club was designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite and officially opened on July 4, 2006. After the course received mixed reviews following the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust in 2009, the course underwent a renovation led by Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services. Of note, the course hosted an event during the PGA Tour Playoffs four times (2009, 2013, 2019 and 2021) as well as the 2017 Presidents Cup, where the U.S. defeated the Internationals 19-11 for the Americans’ seventh consecutive victory in the competition and its 10th straight win overall. For this week’s event, the course will play to a par of 72 with an unofficial scorecard yardage of 6,671 yards.

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