Houston Roughnecks Director of Team Operations Danielle Lee (left); with Marc Lillibridge, Director of Player Personnel; and Wade Phillips, Head Coach. Photo credit: A. Givens
Houston Roughnecks Director of Team Operations Danielle Lee (left); with Marc Lillibridge, Director of Player Personnel; and Wade Phillips, Head Coach. Photo credit: A. Givens

Super Bowl LVII and the NFL Combine are behind us, and the 2023 NFL Draft will take place April 27th – 29th in Kansas City. Many may not be aware that teams are improving their talent on the field and those leading the teams. Since 2016 the NFL has made tremendous strides on and off the field. The Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith as the first full-time assistant coach. The momentum has continued, and this past week the Seventh Annual Women’s NFL Forum was held in Indianapolis.

In 2017, Sam Rapoport, a former American football player who currently works for the NFL as Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, had a vision for women to be more of a presence in the NFL. She felt that it was important to create an initiative and pipeline where women could work together and set a foundation that would be important for women to grow within this game.

Since then, 26 teams have hired past forum participants, and over 225 opportunities have emerged for women in the NFL. Last summer, the NFL had 15 women in coaching during training camp – a record for any male professional sports league worldwide.

The forum kicked off with a panel that included Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner; Mike Vrabel, head coach of Tennessee Titans; Brian Daboll, head coach of New York Giants; Brandon Beane, general manager Buffalo Bills; Andrew Berry Cleveland, general manager Cleveland Browns; Darcie Glazer-Kassewitz, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ownership, and Dasha Smith, NFL Executive VP & Chief Administrative Officer.

“I couldn’t even imagine having a career in football when I was sort of coming up the ranks, and so this is so awesome that this can no longer be a dream but a reality for so many people,” Smith said. One common thread throughout the day was how passion, dreams, and perseverance got the women to where we are today and how we can set a foundation together.

Regarding women in the NFL, Goodell said, “We have not begun to reach its heights and what is to come.” Goodell continued to stress how women are the future of football, but it’s not just hiring women, it’s hiring the best candidate for the job, whether that be a man or a woman, but giving women a chance is where it starts.

Rapoport pointed out that it’s no conscience that the last three Coach of the Year winners were all coaches who have hired women for their immediate staffs: Daboll (2022), Vrabel (2021), and Kevin Stefanski, head coach, Cleveland Browns (2020).

“I didn’t hire the women because I have daughters; I didn’t hire them because I have strong people [women] in my life. I hired them because they were good. There’s such a great untapped talent pool,” said Daboll. “We all have the same goal, to win,” said Jennifer King, the Washington Commanders’ running backs coach.

After the initial introduction, Sam Rapoport hosted a discussion with some of the league’s “First” coaches:

* Lori Locust, Tennessee Titans defensive quality control coach.

*Autumn Lockwood, NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles strength and conditioning seasonal associate.

* Angela Baker, New York Giants offensive quality control coach,

*Callie Brownson, Cleveland Browns assistant wide receivers Coach,

*Jennifer King Washington Commanders Assistant Running Backs coach; *Maral Javadifar, Tampa Bay Buccaneers director of rehabilitation and performance coach.

Participating in these discussions were 41 women who are currently seeking opportunities in the NFL. Most participants ranged from operations, scouting, and video coordinators at the collegiate level to player development within Scouting Networks. The panel opened with a Q & A, giving them a chance to ask questions about how they handled certain situations in the workplace.

As Lori Locust said, “the NFL is not male dominant, it’s male prevalent!” “This is an essential message because using the word dominant suggests that women aren’t supposed to be here. But we are all working together to achieve the same goal, and that’s to have the best management, players, and staff in the best position to win!

Since we are talking about women in professional football, we must mention Dana Garcia. Garcia’s acquisition of the XFL made her the first woman to own an equal or majority ownership stake in a major professional sports league in the United States. With partners Dwayne Johnson and RedBird Capital, Garcia is making great strides with women in the XFL. Four of the eight XFL teams have hired women as Director Team Operations, Stacie Johnson with DC Defenders, Anastasia Ali with St Louis Battlehawks, Temeko Richardson with Las Vegas Vipers, and Danielle Lee with Houston Roughnecks. Lee has spent time in the NFL on the team side with the Pittsburg Steelers and at the NFL League office in operations. These ladies know the hard work of producing a winner on the field and are committed to winning in professional football!

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