It was the ultimate case of poor timing.
On Tuesday, four days after the NFL held its first-ever Women’s Careers in Football forum, the Buffalo Bills fired Kathryn Smith, the league’s only female full-time assistant coach, along with most of former coach Rex Ryan’s staff.
Given that the Bills were cleaning house for new coach Sean McDermott, Smith’s firing was not unexpected. She likely will find a job with another team.
Yet the fact remains that as we head into Sunday’s Super Bowl LI, not one of the league’s 32 teams has a woman who is working full-time on its coaching staff. Smith’s firing leaves Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s first female referee, as the only woman currently working full- time in game-related positions.
Sam Rapoport is looking to change all that, big time. Rapoport, a former women’s pro tackle football quarterback, was hired by the NFL this past fall for the newly created position of director of football development. Her mission is to address the lack of women in football operations by establishing a pipeline to connect qualified women with NFL executives and coaches who can help them in their career path.
“I’m very passionate about the inclusion of women in football,” Rapoport said in a phone interview. “I believe you have to look at the entire pool of talent to get the very best. If you leave out 50 percent of the population, you’re never going to get the very best.”
While it is hard to laud the NFL for taking a seat at the inclusionary table a good decade after the rest of corporate America, it does appear that the league is making an effort to reach out to women beyond creating pink-colored merchandise.
In addition to holding the Women’s Careers in Football forum at the Pro Bowl, the league held its second annual NFL Women’s Summit this week at the Super Bowl, which was designed to introduce teenage girls to successful women in a variety of careers.
And this season — 13 years after establishing the Rooney Rule, which requires that the league interview minorities for head-coaching jobs and other positions — the NFL decided to extend the rule to cover female candidates for front-office positions.
Observers around the league are cautiously optimistic.
“It remains to be seen if and to what extent these new programs generate new interest and opportunity in football,” said Amy Trask, an analyst for CBS Sports Network who broke barriers when she served as the CEO of the Oakland Raiders from 1997-2013. “I don’t know that we know how that story will be written.”
But we can guess why it’s being written. It’s safe to say the league’s decision to reach out to women is not motivated by pure altruism. It’s pure good business. According to a 2013 NFL-commissioned report, 45 percent of the league’s fans and a third of its television audience are women. Last year, according to Nielsen, 46 percent of Super Bowl viewers were women. That means more women watched the Super Bowl than the Grammies and Oscars combined.
What’s more, the league understands that women play a pivotal role in what could be a looming existential crisis. According to some reports, participation in youth football has dropped as much as 27.7 percent in the past seven years. When a family sits down and decides whether junior is going to play football, you can bet it will help if Mom sees the sport in a positive light.
In the two years since the handling and suspension of Ray Rice for domestic abuse exposed the league’s insularity, the NFL office has made a concerted effort to put more women in decision-making positions, according to the 2016 report card issued by Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. In two years, the number of women in those positions has risen by 6 percent to 30.7 percent, earning the league a B-minus grade.
Individual teams, however, lag far behind the league when it comes to promoting women to decision-making positions. Only 21 percent of vice president or senior administrative positions are held by women. Though the report rates coaching staffs and officiating crews for racial diversity, the numbers are so low for women that they are included for football operations.
Rapoport hopes the Women’s Careers In Football forum will be the first step in changing all that. The audience was a group of 200 women’s tackle football players from all over the world. These were women who know the game and with the right training and connections could become candidates for officiating, scouting and coaching jobs. Among the speakers were Panthers coach Ron Rivera and executives from a number of NFL clubs.
As we head into Super Bowl LI, Rapoport was asked if she can foresee the day when there will be a female head coach on the sideline. Her answer made it clear that she is aiming for more than that.
Said Rapoport: “The mission is truly to normalize women on the sidelines so it’s no longer a story to discuss ‘the first.’ That’s where my true focus lies.”