The Revolution Will Be Televised
The setting is the Carolina Panthers sports facility. Star quarterback Cam Newton is fielding questions from the media. A reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, asks a question about his chemistry with wide receiver Devin Funchess. Newton starts to smirk as her question goes on, before replying that it's funny to hear a woman ask a question about wide receivers ‘running routes’. A stunned silence ensues in the room and the recriminations begin for Newton. The room empties. It's 2017 but it could be 1947.
You could hear a collective sigh from everyone involved in football. History has taught us at every stage of progress, setbacks are inevitable. Newton’s comments were ignorant and sexist - thankfully they were completely out of kilter with the majority of people in football.
Women are an important demographic and fan base for the NFL - statistics show 47% of the leagues fan base are women. Women work as beat reporters covering teams, and some are beginning to scale the upper echelons of teams in a coaching or executive capacity. Perhaps as important, the NFL has put in place a diversity and inclusion office to oversee how more women can get into football and support those already inside. The lack of women in sports leadership roles is frustrating. While men still constitute the majority across all positions in football, bit by bit, women are slowly breaking through. I’ll explore why women are cutting through and how the league is increasingly open to helping them carve a path.
The Rise of Women in Football The recent women’s progress in football is not hard to chart. Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a playoff game in 2019. When Rex Ryan was Buffalo Bills head coach in 2016, he brought in Kathryn Smith as the quality control special teams coach, making her the NFL’s first full-time female assistant coach. Next came Katie Sowers, NFL assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, the first female and the first openly gay coach in history to be on the sidelines for the 2020 Super Bowl. Sowers has become the poster child for women in football. In 2017, Beth Mowins became the first woman to call a nationally televised Monday Night Football game. Female agent, Nicole Lynn, represented two players drafted in the top fifty of the 2020 NFL draft. Women are shining and continuing to proliferate in the football media. Phyllis George, who passed over the weekend, was a pioneering female football broadcaster in the 1970s. In her footsteps nowadays, Colleen Wolfe is a brilliant host on the NFL Network and her infectious humor lights up the Around the NFL podcast. ESPN’s Mina Kimes combines a broad journalist hinterland with mischief. They’re a ubiquitous presence at their respective networks. First and foremost, they’re media commentators bringing a command of the game and passion to a wider audience. Football’s Female Pipeline The NFL has a responsibility to reach out and cater to the considerable female audience. The relationship can occasionally be complicated for women who are fans of the league, especially around domestic abuse cases featuring prominent players. If we park the obdurate past, the prevailing view is that more women should be working broadly across football. Often, it is because they can bring something different to table. A valuable piece of intelligence on a draft prospect. Access to the views of the general manager or owner to help you land a Week 5 of the regular season big story. Whether you are a scout, coach or reporter these insights and new perspectives can give a media outlet or football organisation a competitive edge.
Judy Battista is one the best reporters in the business. After almost 15 years with the New York Times, where she covered the NFL nationally since 2004, she breaks stories and works as an influential commentator at NFL Media. Battista was once asked how the players react to female writers and her comments were encouraging. “By and large, I think NFL players are pretty good to deal with. Most of them are young enough that they have probably had female reporters covering them at some point in high school or college, so it might not be a shock to see a woman there.” Sam Rapoport, senior director of diversity and inclusion at the NFL is trying to cultivate a pathway for women who want careers in football.
Rapoport is focused on increasing the visibility of women who already work in football, with the mission of normalizing women in football. Rather than putting markers on the first female in each category, the aim is to flood the pipeline with girls and women so overall female representation goes up. Inclusion and diversity required football to be more than just the basic ingredients product it was. Being relevant and staying ahead of other sports in 2020 requires opening up access within the game to different genders, nationalities and innovating to reach new audiences.
The Quiet March After a slow start, the NFL realizes that women in droves watch and want to participate in football. Let’s hope those involved in coaching, executive and media roles have a framework from the league and teams to thrive. There is a quiet dignity about their march. One thing you can count on is that we’ll keep seeing female beat reporters asking high profile players smart questions.
Whatever happened to Jourdan Rodrigue, whom I mentioned at the top of this post? She has just begun covering the Los Angeles Rams for The Athletic and is waiting for her opportunity to safely head west.
It's imperative there’s a structure for others to follow her. Football has a chance to enrich itself and break new ground by supporting more women and diversifying. How fast can the NFL follow its gut and implement lasting change?