INDIANAPOLIS — In his position as executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, John Wooten is dedicated to promoting diversity among NFL coaches and front-office executives. He has largely succeeded in raising awareness among owners who have responded by enlarging the talent pool from which major hires are made.
“I think we’re on track,” Wooten said at this week’s NFL Scouting Combine, where alliance members met. “I think we’ve made tremendous progress, and you just get a real good feeling of what this should be all about and what this is all about.”
But Wooten’s mission has now expanded to include a group of people not normally associated with NFL teams: women. A former guard who played a combined 10 seasons with Cleveland and Washington, Wooten believes women can provide a major impact on the sport and deserve the chance to prove it.
“I know there are enough women out there who have the ability to work in the NFL,” said Wooten, 79. “I’ve been around a long time, and there’s no reason they couldn’t do it. You look at scouts and general managers. Scouts and general managers sit and look at tape and evaluate. Ozzie Newsome [Ravens GM], Ted Thompson [Packers GM], those guys who are, in my opinion, the best in the business, it’s no different than what a woman can do, and that’s to know the characteristics and says a player does this good or doesn’t do this good. It’s just a matter of looking at the tape.”
Wooten goes back to his own days as a scout for the Cowboys to provide an example of why women are capable of making sound football judgments.
“Back when I was working for the Cowboys, I worked the east, and so did Linda Wilson, the daughter of Ralph Wilson,” Wooten said. “She lived in New Jersey and we pretty much worked the same area. Outstanding person. Outstanding evaluator, and I saw that up close. We made the recommendation a year ago that there should be a movement toward providing women the opportunity to open doors.”
Can Wooten envision a day when a woman would run a team’s front office as a GM?
“Yes, because I know there are enough women out there that have that ability,” he said. “There’s no reason they couldn’t do it.”
In fact, Wooten has pushed the NFL to include women as part of its “Rooney Rule” requirement that all teams must interview at least one minority candidate for all head-coaching and lead front-office administrator positions. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced during Super Bowl week that at least one woman will be interviewed for all executive positions in the NFL office, and there could soon be a similar rule for executive positions among all NFL teams. It will not apply to coaching positions.
“We [in the Fritz Pollard Alliance] may have been the first people to come up with that,” Wooten said. “It’s a very helpful idea.”
Wooten pointed to Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the daughter of team owner Mike Brown, as an example of a woman handling many duties of a GM.
“She’s evaluating, she’s doing contracts, she’s pretty much running the show,” Wooten said of Blackburn, who heads the NFL’s diversity committee.
Pollard expressed disappointment that former Raiders executive officer Amy Trask, arguably the highest-ranking woman in an NFL organization (among non-family members), left the organization after managing partner Al Davis died in 2011.
“There’s no question that Amy Trask should have been elevated to president of the Raiders after the death of Al Davis,” Wooten said. “She should have been that person.”
Wooten hopes to see Trask, who now works at CBS as an NFL analyst, back in the NFL.
“If I were an NFL owner, I would really be trying to get her on board,” Wooten said. “I would name her president of the organization.”
Wooten hailed Bills coach Rex Ryan for appointing Kathryn Smith, a former Jets front-office executive, as the NFL’s first full-time female assistant coach. Smith is a special-teams quality-control coach after having served as Ryan’s executive assistant. Last year, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hired Jen Welter, who had previously played women’s professional football, to help coach inside linebackers during training camp, making her the NFL’s first female coach.
Can more women become NFL assistant coaches, perhaps even a head coach one day?
Wooten remains skeptical on that one.
“I think you’d be limited there, in all fairness,” Wooten said. “I think there’s a little bit of a different technique of teaching, but it could happen. I’m not sure, but that may be a little ways off.”
Welter respectfully disagrees.
“There will be a woman head coach in the NFL,” Welter told Newsday colleague Neil Best on Thursday night at the espnW Impact 25 gala in New York. “The process to become a head coach in the NFL at all is a long process, though. So we’re just now seeing the door opened. I know females who are head coaches of women’s football teams. There’s a great one with the Pittsburgh Passion, which has a phenomenal tradition. Odessa Jenkins, my former teammate, is the head coach and one of the owners of the Dallas Elite. Keke Blackmon is the head coach of the Kansas City team. Knengi Martin is head coach of a high school football team out in California. These are all women who I came up in the game with. You need that experience. When you have that at that level, it will translate into upper levels, there’s no question in my mind. It will happen. It’s going to take a while.”
The progress has been slow and incremental, but as Wooten says, it is progress nonetheless. And like the NFL’s ongoing efforts to promote diversity among its key hires, women will increasingly become a part of the process.
“I think this is good for women,” Wooten said. “They deserve it.”