NFL Women's Summit focuses on inspiring youth over larger topics

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made a brief appearance at the NFL Women's Summit, encouraging an audience filled with teenage girls to take advantage of what the speakers had to say.

HOUSTON -- NFL chief marketing officer Dawn Hudson remembered last year's NFL Women's Summit when a young girl in the audience asked Serena Williams where she got her confidence.

Williams said she had always been confident, and that stuck with Hudson, acknowledging that girls' confidence is a very delicate topic.

"If we want to have an impact on teen girls," Hudson said, "maybe we need to let them be in a safe space where they can ask questions and get some younger people to talk to them and inspire them."

This year's summit, the NFL's second annual, is a smaller event primarily addressed to about 250 girls from neighboring schools and programs, a change from last year's when Williams and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke in San Francisco.

On Friday, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman posed with fans after her panel. Cathy Lanier, the NFL's chief security officer, told her own moving story of becoming chief of the Washington D.C. police department at age 39 after a complicated adolescence. Alexis Jones, founder of I Am That Girl, inspired Alexandra Childs, a 14-year-old student from Young Women's College Preparatory Academy.

"I liked what she told us," Childs said, "that we are who we are, and we're not perfect."

There was remarkable content and conversation during the day, but there was also an elephant in the room when it comes to the NFL and women. Earlier this week, an NFL cheerleader filed what could become a class-action suit against the league for colluding to keep wages low. There is the ongoing issue of player conduct and the fact that the league's baseline six-game suspension for domestic violence has been whittled down in the nearly three years since it was issued.

Inspiring teens is a laudable goal, and it's also a soft topic. There is minimal chance that some of the more controversial issues facing the league will be raised. The NFL is accused of providing more window dressing on women's issues, yet the league has made strides to provide substance.

Hudson is one of many smart and effective women in the NFL's front office. Many more of them were in the room at the Women's Summit. The biggest challenge for them is to produce an event that can acknowledge the issues between some female fans and the league, while at the same time celebrating the ground the NFL has covered in recent years.

If we want to have an impact on teen girls, maybe we need to let them be in a safe space where they can ask questions and get some younger people to talk to them and inspire them.
NFL Chief Marketing Officer Dawn Hudson

At the Pro Bowl in Orlando, the NFL hosted a career forum for about 200 women who play tackle football. It generated spirited discussion, and the NFL provided some of the same advocates for women's opportunities as it did Friday -- Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, former Dolphins VP Dawn Aponte, NFL official Sarah Thomas, Panthers coach Ron Rivera -- to talk to the women who play tackle in the breakout sessions.

Hudson said the initiative announced at last year's summit, a Rooney Rule promise to interview a woman for each manager-level front office job, is working. Notably, Lanier was named CSO after the rule.

"We definitely have more women at the league," Hudson said. "When I was at Pepsi, it takes time, you have to create an environment where they can succeed, you have to get enough people in, and then you have to have the time for them to move up. And what I see, I see people being promoted, they're moving up the ladder. Are we perfect? No, but we're learning. And sports, as an industry, is behind, so I think we're playing catch-up and going after it pretty aggressively."

The summit's intent is to inspire many teenage girls in the audience, and there was also a separate session for the adults in attendance that centered on marketing to that demographic.

Heidi Hardin, an academic counselor at North Shore High School, picked 10 of her best students and athletes, and they all donned red football jerseys for the trip.

"It's awesome, super moving, super empowering," Hardin said. "Our schools are talking about starting a feminine movement in schools. It's moved them to make something happen for everyone in our community."

Commissioner Roger Goodell briefly appeared to offer inspiration and announce an NFL "externship" program for kids to get a sense of what the NFL offers.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The NFL's second annual Women's Summit catered mostly to teenage girls, aiming to inspire them.

"I hope today you take this as a learning opportunity," Goodell said. "This is all about the opportunity to listen to people who represent something different than what you expected. Some people who you have no experience with whatsoever, some people who are real celebs. This is an opportunity to ask questions and to make sure you move down the path that you want to move down."

Then, Goodell told the story of writing his father a letter when he was just 18 and telling him that he wanted to be the NFL commissioner someday. He asked if anyone in the audience wanted to grow up and be NFL commissioner.

No one raised a hand.

"Come on," Goodell said and then laughed. "I don't blame you by the way."

Geographically, it made sense that no fewer than three astronauts were on stage in the morning in a city dominated by NASA. Plus, there was a recorded greeting from Peggy Whitson as she floated high over the earth on a mission. The video played in an event space with a high ceiling called The Citadel on the outskirts of Houston, where circular tables greeted packs of teenage girls with miniature breakfast muffins for the first of two days of deliberately inspirational programming.

There was also astronaut Leland Melvin, who told the story behind his official work photo in which he appears in his space suit flanked by his two dogs. When the day came for his official NASA photo, his family was out of town. Usually astronauts can pose with family, so Melvin brought his two sturdy sandy-coated dogs instead. He snuck them upstairs into the photo studio and told the photographer to start shooting.

"All three of us are holding hands, and they're saying, we're with you, we got your back," Melvin said.

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