Of course Condoleezza Rice shouldn't be an NFL head coach. But that shouldn't close the door on women
I was watching the early slate of Sunday NFL games and downing tater tots at a Los Angeles watering hole when I saw the report, via ESPN's Adam Schefter, that the Browns were interested in interviewing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for their vacant head-coach position.
My first thought was to blame a couple of mimosas for what must have been a misreading on my part. After a second look, I thought to myself, "This idea is too Browns -- even for the Browns."
It didn't seem possible that Cleveland would genuinely be interested in tapping Rice to lead the team onto the field every Sunday. Even a team synonymous with failure wouldn't hire a head coach -- no matter the person's gender -- without a single second of coaching experience, right? Even a franchise that has had to pay its past eight fired coaches roughly $63.4 million to not coach the team wouldn't prioritize business and political acumen over football knowledge, right?
According to the Browns, the idea was, in fact, too outside the box -- even for them. After praising Rice's leadership abilities, Browns general manager John Dorsey denied that she was discussed as a potential coaching candidate.
Rice, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and senior fellow on public policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, recently led the Commission on College Basketball's investigation of corruption in the sport and spent three years as a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. A lifelong Browns fan who has expressed interest in taking over as NFL commissioner, she's certainly got the bona fides for a front-office position. But a coach? Even Rice acknowledged she's not qualified, posting on Facebook, "I'm not ready to coach, but I would like to call a play or two next season if the Browns need ideas! And at no time will I call for a 'prevent defense'!"
That shot at Marty Schottenheimer's infamous, 1986 AFC Championship decision-making proves that even Rice couldn't resist finding the humor in the rumor. But while I understand the temptation to turn any novel idea by the Browns into a chuckle-fest -- bonus points to Rich Eisen, Eric Adelson and a gentleman who goes by the name "True Detective Pikachu" for their efforts -- there's a legitimate conversation to be had about women in coaching positions in the NFL. Thankfully, Rice used her moment in the crosshairs of the Twittersphere and sports journos to start it.
"On a more serious note, I do hope that the NFL will start to bring women into the coaching profession as position coaches and eventually coordinators and head coaches," Rice wrote. "But experience counts -- and it is time to develop a pool of experienced women coaches."
Hopefully, folks will focus on Rice's push for the continued development of a pipeline for women in the NFL and not use the former Secretary of State as a token to argue that all women are unfit for the job, or that diversity hires are made just to hit a quota. Already, at least one media talking head is pushing a conspiracy theory that the leak is proof the "female agenda" is seeking to raise up women at the expense of qualified African-American males.
While there's no reason to trust the motivations or instincts of a team that took a 1-31 record into this season, there is reason to trust the NFL's investment in hiring women. The NFL proved it is serious about expanding opportunities for women when Samantha Rapoport was tapped to be the league's director of football development in 2016. Rapoport said Rice is right on pushing for women to gain the experience needed for jobs traditionally limited to men.
"Dr. Rice's sentiments are aligned with the objective of our programming," Rapoport said in an email Monday. "There is a need for those who are underrepresented to be enfranchised in coaching football and women are certainly one of those groups."
Already, Rapoport's NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum has resulted in 19 coaching opportunities for women at the high school, collegiate and NFL level. Callie Brownson, the first full-time Division I female college football coach, and Phoebe Schecter, a coaching intern with the Bills, were both two-time participants in the program. Teams at all levels are beginning to realize that dismissing half of the world's population means ignoring some of the best possible candidates.
The key is, of course, that the women helping break the glass ceiling in football (as well as those doing the same in any traditionally male-dominated field) are as qualified and as talented as the men with whom they're working. Elevating women and/or persons of color just to hit a quota or prove an investment in diversity can actually set the movement back. Just like floating the idea of a woman who has never coached a down in her life going straight to head coach can diminish the respect given to female candidates who are actually putting in the work to qualify.
"Female involvement and advancement in coaching football is a long-term proposition," Rapoport said. "We are in the early stages of growing a robust pipeline of entry-level female coaches who are as qualified as anyone to coach the game. We have three women currently coaching at our clubs and it is imperative that our expectations for their advancement mirror the same for men."
Because Rice is clearly not qualified for the job, she has quickly become the subject of scrutiny, an easily cast-aside token. But it's worth noting that the idea of Rice as a team adviser or front-office consultant would likely be seen as brilliant were it to come from the mind of Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft. The Browns are not afforded the same benefit of the doubt when it comes to groundbreaking ideas. Maybe because they once pinned their hopes on a quarterback named Money who thought a blonde wig, a fake mustache and glasses would be disguise enough to obscure his identity while partying in Vegas midseason.
It seems, while other teams are successfully adding women to their ranks -- including the 49ers, who employ Katie Sowers as an offensive assistant, and the Raiders, who have hired Kelsey Martinez as a strength and conditioning coach -- the Browns continue to be the Browns, somehow turning an interest in a female candidate into this mess.
But like Brandon Weeden's getting swallowed by a giant American flag before his NFL debut, we can't get distracted.
Going forward, if this Rice-capade causes any team or person to overlook a qualified woman for a job, they'll be as late to the party as Sashi Brown getting the paperwork to the NFL for the AJ McCarron trade. All of the women currently working as scouts, assistants and lower-level coaches are earning their stripes and preparing themselves for the next level up. Get onboard with the changing look of football (and the rest of men's pro sports) or you'll find yourselves just like the Browns -- watching as others pass you by.