Is there anything more manly than the National Football League (NFL)?
Giant men demonstrating their physical prowess by knocking each other senseless seems like the stuff of testosterone-filled dreams. There may have been a time when the NFL could have stood for “Not For Ladies,” but that time has passed. In today’s world, women also love the gridiron game and they’re increasingly becoming a part of it with jobs in the NFL.
In 2003, the NFL instated the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview and consider minority candidates for head coaching and senior operations job openings. In 2016, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that a new Rooney Rule would be established requiring teams to interview women for executive positions.
Women have been a part of the NFL for decades and they’re picking up steam. Here are 5 of the most influential NFL women to work in pigskin paradise.
Connie Carberg – 1st female NFL Scout.
Connie’s dad, Calvin Nicholas, was a team doctor for the New York Jets and sometimes a guy named Joe Namath would come by the house for meals. Connie Carberg grew up around football, played sports and talked the game as well as any guy her age. In 1974, with a new college degree in Home Economics, the Jets offered her a job as a secretary.
Her job had her making notes on game films and players to such an extent that when the Jets needed to add another travelling scout to their team, General Manager Weeb Ewbank (yes, that was his name) proposed the unthinkable. Why not promote Connie to the position? She was practically already trained.
She scouted college players and helped the Jets figure out who to draft for several seasons. In 1979 she pointed them to Mark Gastineau who went on to be one of the best players in Jet’s history. Her stint as an NFL scout only lasted a few years, but it was a remarkable feat considering it was the mid-1970’s.
Katie Blackburn – Executive Vice President - Cincinnati Bengals.
Katie Blackburn got a law degree but ended up working in sports. Her father, Mike Brown, owns the Bengals, so while she may have had the inside track, once she got in, she made the most of it. She started out in the front office in 1991 and eventually became the first woman to become the primary contract negotiator. Her law degree and years of helping her father in contract negotiations prepared her for the job and she quickly gained a reputation as a tough-as-nails negotiator. Now she is the Executive VP of the team and is expected to grab the reins when her father retires as president. She also is the chair of the NFL’s Diversity Committee and the Super Bowl Advisory Committee.
Her family ties may have held the door open for her to get a job in the NFL, but Blackburn’s dogged determination and smarts have elevated her to prominence in the league.
Sarah Thomas – 1st female full-time NFL Official.
Vertical stripes are slimming, right? Sarah Thomas probably doesn’t care. She’s not working in sports for the wardrobe. Thomas started officiating like most of her male counterparts did. She started with high school games and eventually got the attention of Gerry Austin, Conference USA’s coordinator of officials. He invited her to an officiating camp and realized that she had everything it takes to be a great football official. He helped her get started in the college ranks and by 2009 she became the first woman to officiate an NCAA Division I bowl game when she took the field at Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Okay, it’s not the Rose Bowl, but it’s a start. She went on to become part of the NFL’s officiating development camp and in 2015 she was hired as the NFL’s first female full-time official.
In 2015 she was the end zone line judge when the Pittsburgh Steelers Le’Veon Bell pushed through the pile at the buzzer for a game-winning touchdown. It was a close play filled with drama, but Thomas called the score and replay confirmed it. It was her ‘welcome to the NFL’ moment.
Jen Welter – 1st female Coach in the NFL.
Can NFL players really take direction from a female coach? Yes. Especially if that female played rugby in college and professional women’s football. For Jen Welter, football is life and she’s broken a few barriers in her day. She was the first woman to play a “contact” position (read: not a punter or place kicker) in a men’s professional football league when she played for the Revolution. What did she play? Only running back. Wait, what? Yeah, she had three rushes for -1 yard, but that’s beside the point. They trusted her to run with the rock. That’s pretty impressive. She was the first female coach in a men’s professional football league when she became the linebackers coach for the Texas Revolution in the Indoor Football League the next season.
In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals announced that they’d hired her to be an assistant coaching intern for the preseason. Tyrann Mathieu, the “Honey Badger,” took a liking to her after they exchanged stories about their nicknames (hers was “Spider Monkey). Her stint working in sports was short lived since it was just a preseason internship, but she left a big mark.
Kathryn Smith – 1st female full-time Coach in the NFL.
Did Jen Welter really open any doors? She must have, because in 2016 the Buffalo Bills announced that they’d hired Kathryn Smith as their full-time coach for special teams quality control. What does that coach do? Head Coach Rex Ryan told the Buffalo News that, “A lot of that goes with the tough things. Doing all the computer stuff, doing all the drawings, all that type of stuff.” So, frankly, no one really knows.
Smith started working in sports as an intern with the NY Jets doing game day events in 2003. From there she went on to become a college scouting intern in 2005. She held a couple of other positions before joining the Bills (and following Rex) in 2015 as an administrative assistant. Her duties had her working closely with several of the coaches and when the time came, the organization decided she was the best fit for the new opening.
Are these the only NFL women? By no means. There have been several team owners and many women are working throughout the league in a variety of positions. These 5 may be the most influential women in the game, though, and the lead blockers for many more women to gain meaningful roles in America’s favorite passion, NFL football. During Super Bowl Week in 2016, the NFL held the first NFL Women’s Summit with the intention of advancing women’s roles in sports.
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