NFL Caps Historic Season With Its First Ever Women's Summit
SAN FRANCISCO -- For the last four years, the San Francisco 49ers organization has given a one-year internship to a promising young woman. It's designed to grant a place at the starting line of the business of football, where connections and shared experiences open doors to future opportunities.
For its first three years, the Denise DeBartolo York Fellowship program placed its intern in the marketing department, one of few well-worn pathways for women in the NFL. But this year was different.
Hannah Gordon, the 49ers' vice president of legal and government affairs, received a visit from the team's director of football administration and its football research and development analyst. "[They] said, 'This year, we want to use this in our department,'" Gordon said. They gave the internship to Brittany Haby from Trinity University in San Antonio.
The request showed Gordon -- who started her career in football 15 years ago working for the Oakland Raiders -- that things are changing in the NFL.
"I hope we're not having this conversation in 10 years," Gordon said. "And I see it happening with the young women here."
This week, ahead of the Super Bowl's 50th run, the NFL is hosting its first ever women's summit. The two-day event starts Thursday with participants including former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Women's Sports Foundation founder Billie Jean King and Serena Williams, who last week fell one match short of her 22nd Grand Slam victory in Australia.
It's an exclusive, invite-only event -- a showcase of what the league can do when it puts energy and investment into a space. The summit's mission is "paying tribute to the critical role sports have played in the lives of female leaders past and present and raising public awareness of the role they can play in developing the next generation of leaders," according to its website.
The event caps a historic season for the NFL, when teams hired women in visible, nontraditional roles. Kathryn Smith, whom Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan added to his special teams coaching staff, became the first full-time female assistant coach in the NFL. Sarah Thomas was the first female official, and Jen Welter was hired as a coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals. Jacqueline Davidson was named the Jets director of football administration. Women have always been part of NFL staffs, but rarely in roles of such authority in the football operation.
It may seem as though it's happening all at once, but many on the inside caution that these women have been training for these jobs for years, and the NFL has been attempting to establish an officiating pipeline for women for the last decade.
Dallas Cowboys chief brand officer Charlotte Jones Anderson, who's worked in the Cowboys' executive office since 1989, said creating opportunity for women is a conversation she has been having with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for years. "How do you encourage that, how do you create a pipeline for that? It's an ongoing conversation," she said.
Yet, how much of this effort is window dressing in the league's ongoing attempt to repair a public relations crisis? Although the NFL made some very visible front office hires -- including chief marketing officer Dawn Hudson and senior vice president of public policy Cynthia Hogan -- following its disastrous handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, the league's commitment to finding qualified women has been a slow work in progress.
The initial Rice suspension -- two games -- was decided by an NFL front office group that didn't include any women. He was eventually suspended indefinitely. One woman at the NFL said that examining these efforts to hire women only through the prism of Rice does a disservice to the women who come to work there every day.
"We need women on the inside who represent women on the outside," Jones Anderson said. "These baby steps are very significant."
Those initial recruiting efforts have included internships like that at the 49ers, job shadowing and career symposiums. The NFL also looks to the ranks of female personnel and officials in the NCAA as a model.
The league has also used less traditional means of attracting knowledgeable women to the game. Two years ago, the NFL was providing funding for USA Football to establish flag football teams for girls. In 2013, it started its WON campaign - or Women Officiating Now.
It was professional women's tackle football leagues that produced Welter, as well as ESPN broadcaster Anita Marks. Having played the game, these women understand the X's and O's of football. A lack of playing experience has often been a criticism of women who want careers in football. That's not so much the case for men who've never played.
"There have to be a few firsts in order for it to be common enough," said Sam Rapoport, the USA Football director of football development. "At first you realize, 'This person is female,' but then it just dissipates. Every minority that broke down a barrier goes through the same thing."