The league has been making slow but steady progress in recruiting more women. And teams know a larger talent pool will produce results
An enthusiastic Brian Daboll walks into an invitation-only room at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, during February’s NFL Combine. The New York Giants head coach looks around and beams, declaring how thrilled he is to be there and offer his advice to the young collegiate hopefuls in the room. But there are no draft prospects here. The room is full of another group hoping to get a crack at the NFL: women.
This year marked the seventh iteration of the NFL’s Women’s Forum, a program designed to put women with aspirations for a career in the league in the same room with NFL rainmakers.
For the most part, these women are in the entry-level phase of their football careers: most have some experience in the collegiate ranks but no higher. Among the 41 participants, there is Isabel Diaz, a defensive assistant at Oklahoma State; Taylor Tolbert, a recruiting operations intern at Alabama; and Chantel Audaine, a football video coordinator for Georgia State. They join their sisters – and, for the moment, rivals – for the chance to join the 225 women who have been offered jobs from the forum. They know they may be the next Angela Baker (Giants offensive quality control coach) or Autumn Lockwood (Philadelphia Eagles strength and conditioning catch). Maybe they’ll one day even sport a Super Bowl ring like Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar, who were part of the staff when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the championship in 2021. But they must seize their opportunity first. An opportunity that was once just a pipe dream.
Daboll takes his seat for a panel called Forward Progress: Setting the Tone From the Top alongside Cleveland Browns GM Andrew Berry, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and Tampa Bay co-owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz. Daboll looks at the panel’s moderator, Sam Rapoport, and with a big grin says: “I love talking football with you, Sam.” The panel nods in agreement.
The Women’s Forum and the opportunities born from it wouldn’t have happened without Rapoport, the NFL’s Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. A former quarterback from Canada, Rapoport started in the marketing department in 2003, after sending the NFL her resume along with a football on which she wrote: “What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?”
Rapoport’s passion grew. She joined USA Football where she used her marketing acumen to create opportunities for women around the world. She then brought her vision to the NFL: creating a sustainable pipeline for women. She wanted to get them into football operations and analytics and coaching and the training room. She wanted to open doors that were previously closed to women, even though they comprise 47% of football’s audience.
Rapoport knew of a plethora of women clawing to get in the league. Players and coaches willing to pay their own money to compete in other leagues because they were so passionate about the sport. Women who lived and breathed football schematics and strategy. Women at the collegiate level whose scouting and football ops dreams were dashed because all they saw at the next level was a sea of men.
Rapoport ran in these circles. For the most part NFL decision-makers did not. Few of them intentionally rebuffed these women; they simply didn’t know they existed.
Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians is one of the few who sought to get women into football before the NFL forum was created. He brought on former indoor football player Jen Welter as a training camp and preseason coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.
“I really believe she’ll have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her. It’s not going to be a distraction in any way. I believe very strongly in it,” Arians said at the time.
While Welter went on to a successful career as an author, public speaker, and earned coaching gigs in the XFL and (now defunct) AAF, her time in the NFL was short lived. And while a few other women received internships in the year or two after Welter, most of those placements were fleeting.
Rapoport presented a strategic, long-term vision approach to the NFL’s top brass. She made the case that a pool of applicants that includes 100% of the population is better than one that only contains half. The inaugural NFL Women’s Forum was held in 2017.
“This whole thing is built off relationships. Sometimes you hear the criticism of the NFL that it’s a buddy, good ol’ boy system or whatever it is, but really there are relationships that are built at the very entry level of relationship building, if you will,” New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh said at the forum in 2021.
Building and developing those relationships is the nucleus of the program. It’s not just about getting these women and their prospective employers in the same room; it’s cultivating real relationships that continue long after the forum. It’s about Rapoport and her team building ties with the clubs. And when they get that genuine buy in, ensuring that the women are well vetted and prepared.
When the forum began, team representatives weren’t exactly beating down Rapoport’s door begging to attend. Just one head coach and one owner attended the first. This year, all 32 clubs were represented.
“We used to have a small room,” Rapoport said. “Now we’ve had to double the size because of the interest. It was overwhelming to see how many people want to be involved in the progress here.”
Now clubs are reaching out to her to ask about candidates. Coaches are participating in a meaningful way. Rapoport points out that Vrabel was particularly proactive this year. “He called me before his session and spoke passionately about what he wanted to teach. It wasn’t just: ‘What do you need me to do?’” she says.
The increased interest from NFL teams may be because society is evolving. But it’s also rooted in the NFL’s guiding principle: everything is a competition.
Would a team in need of, say, a backup quarterback, only consider half the options out there? Of course not. The same applies here. Teams want the best analytics intern and the best coaching intern. Thanks to Rapoport’s work, they now realize that the applicant pool can be much deeper than previous thought.
The doors close at the forum. No more media. No more spectators. It’s time for the real action and relationship building. The participants break into small groups. They get insight and advice from leaders. They share their own vision and goals. And sometimes they impress to the point where a head coach will instantly hand out his email, as six-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick did last year.
The success of the program speaks for itself. Last year, the NFL had 15 women in coaching roles in training camp. And women are earning roles in all avenues of football, including the 21 female athletic trainers sprinkled throughout the league.
Now that the door has flung open, the next step is advancement. We’ve seen it in front offices, most notably with Catherine Raiche, who was recently named assistant general manager and vice-president of football operations for the Browns. But how do coaches like Locust, Lockwood, Washington’s Jennifer King and Cleveland’s Callie Brownson go from assistant roles to running a position group or even becoming a coordinator? These women don’t have the advantage of coming from a family of NFL coaches, nor will they get credit for turning around a unit if they’re not running the show.
Rapoport doesn’t seem concerned with the current crop of female coaches getting stuck in entry level purgatory. She believes we’re just a year or two away from some significant promotions.
“It’s coming soon and it’s progressing at the rate it should be based on the talent pool,” Rapoport says. “If we had someone who was fast-tracked, that’s not usually a good thing for that person, particularly if they are underrepresented and marginalized.
Tampa’s Javadifar has been promoted to the team’s Director of Rehabilitation. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told Rapoport he’s been training Brownson to lead a positional room. And a coach like King, now entering her fourth season in Washington, speaks to the longevity and sustainability of the NFL’s program. These are no flash in the pan hires. Locust joked at the forum about reaching a common threshold for coaches.
“Now I know I’ve really earned my stripes as an NFL coach,” she said of being fired by Tampa in February. The fact that Vrabel scooped her before his competitors speaks to the success of the pipeline.
Ten of the 41 participants at this year’s forum have already landed jobs in the NFL, eight of whom are women of color. They earned the opportunity. Now it’s their turn to make the most of it.
A multi-lingual talent head, Allen is fluent in languages such as Spanish, Russian, Italian, and many more. He has a special curiosity for the events and stories revolving in and around US and caters an uncompromising form of journalistic standard for the audiences.