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.
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.”
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.
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.”