Sports Illustrated Puts The Spotlight On “Women Who Are Changing The Face Of The NFL”

There have been a number of stories over the past few years profiling the pioneer women who are making inroads in male-dominated sports, especially on the coaching side. Whether it is Becky Hammon in the NBA, Justine Siegel in baseball, or Jen Welter in the NFL (pictured above). The NFL has been the focus of plenty of media attention recently, and not necessarily for the most positive news.

The league has had to endure intense public scrutiny about various players’ sexual assault, domestic violence and rape accusations (Ray Rice, Jameis Winston), but also for its treatment of ex-player Colin Kaepernick who was shunned for being an outspoken advocate for Black Lives Matter and ending police brutality toward the black community. It’s clear the NFL needs some major change, and a recent in-depth profile on Sports Illustrated by reporter Jenny Vrentas shows perhaps some gender balance could be the key to making this happen.

The article focused on a handful of women who are being hired in various coaching and operations roles, as well as some of the initiatives that are being created to entice more women into positions of leadership. One of those women is Sam Rapaport, a former Canadian league quarterback who has been involved in football development programs with NFL decision-makers.

Most notably, she helped organize a Women’s Careers in Football Forum with NFL coaches and executives in January 2016 which saw more than 250 female players from around the world attending. Buffalo Bills team co-owner Kim Pegula told the attendees she was yet to see a resume from a woman applying for a football operations role, and hoped the forum would change that. Jenny Vrentas reported more than 20 women have been hired in various behind-the-scenes roles since the event, proving the initiatives and visibility of other women is important.

“Our metrics aren’t getting one female in and saying we did it. Our metrics are normalizing the sight and experience of women in football operations,” said Sam to Sports Illustrated.

They say a company or workplace culture is often determined by its leadership, so to have more and more women apply to positions of power is not just about gender balance, but potentially creating a new narrative around the culture of football. Jenny interviewed the NFL’s first openly LGBTQ coach Katie Sowers, 31, an intern for the San Francisco 49ers (yes, Kaepernick’s old team), Phoebe Schecter, 27, coaching intern for the Buffalo Bills, and Stephanie Jackson, 29, scouting intern for the Minnesota Vikings.

Each of the women were asked about the evolution of more women in the NFL, and how they see the league becoming a more female-friendly place that will benefit everyone. Katie credits Sam Rapaport with opening many doors for a number of women in the NFL, because many women don’t even know the opportunities exist until someone shows them.

“There are studies that prove the more diverse an organization is, the better it operates, just because you have people who see things from different perspectives. A lot of times I think organizations are a copycat type of organization, just because it’s the way things have always been done and the way things continue to be done. Until you get a diverse workforce, things don’t improve as much as the potential that they really can,” she said.

Phoebe Schecter says the presence of women could potentially have a good impact on the toxic masculine culture that the NFL is known for.

“It’s not a negative thing to have women involved in football. They bring a different light to it. Players actually act a little bit differently around women and maybe a bit more thoughtful in terms of their behaviors and how they handle themselves. I think it’s a really positive thing,” she said.

Considering women make up nearly half of all football fans in the US, and the league is making more money than every before (currently $13 billion in revenue a year), making it a diverse workforce doesn’t seem to be affecting its bottom line, in fact it seems to be improving it.

These pioneer women being interviewed also recognize the impact it has on the younger generation, who may get the chance to grow up in a world where seeing a tonne of women in a male-dominated sport is completely normal. Katie Sowers recalls speaking to young girls at a sports camp the past couple of years, and seeing a huge difference in just one year as more progress is being made.

“I remember talking to them last year, and I would ask them, So, do you think girls can play football? And the answers were, No, that’s a boys’ sport. When I came to speak to them this year, the attitude was completely different. I was almost crazy for asking that question. The answer was, Of course they can. I am seeing a change in the mindset of young girls I speak to,” she said.

This seems to echo the “if she can be it, she can see it” sentiment often touted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, an organization which has talked about the impact of seeing women playing sports in major films and TV shows. Geena Davis herself played a lead role in a film that is still iconic for its focus on women’s baseball (‘A League of Their Own’), but she has also talked about the increase in number of young girls taking up archery after Disney’s ‘Brave’ and especially ‘The Hunger Games’ were released.

Stephanie Jackson understands the importance of this normalization of seeing women in football on the field and on TV screens at home.

“My hope is that it becomes a habit for American families to turn on the TV and watch women in the spring and summer play football. I’m hoping that it’s a household thing on the field, and that will give women more of an opportunity who do have a love for the game and were forced, like I was, to go to another sport, just because there is nothing for them. I want to build a league for women on the field that’s widely watched and is widely televised,” she said.

In fact, all three women agree that normalization means it has to go beyond just the token headline here and there when one woman is hired or breaks the glass ceiling for a particular sport.

“The day that nobody even blinks at that will be a huge day for the sport, and it will happen,” said Phoebe Schecter.

You can read Jenny Vrentas’ full profile on all three women on the Sports Illustrated’s website and learn more about how women are creating inroads into this male-dominated arena.

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