NFL hosting career forum to get women into coaching, scouting roles

The NFL is holding a career summit to advise women on how to get into operations or coaching roles, like the one held by Bills assistant coach Kathryn Smith. Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Home teams in the NFL have historically been responsible for headsets used by coaching staffs on the sidelines. And seemingly every year, a visitor's system would stop working, making coordinators unable to communicate with their players on the field. Was it a simple malfunction? Tampering? Sabotage?

But ever since the NFL's chief information officer, Michelle McKenna-Doyle , instituted a new communications system leaguewide this season, the complaints and accusations have come to a stop. In her role, she's also talking to owners about microchip technology for inside footballs that could eliminate the need for sideline chains.

"There's a lot that goes on that's not playing or coaching that affects the game," McKenna-Doyle said.

When the NFL heads to Orlando for the Pro Bowl this week, McKenna-Doyle and other high-ranking front-office women will take part in a career-development forum to discuss how they came to have some of the best jobs in the league. She will present alongside owners and coaches.

The audience will be a group of more than 200 women's tackle football players from all over the world -- women who know and have played the game and who, with the right training, could become candidates for officiating, scouting and coaching jobs.

This two-day forum, which starts on Thursday, is the brainchild of the NFL's new director of football development, Sam Rapoport. Her job has been to create the pipeline for more women to get hired in the NFL -- so at the forum, women with a natural affinity for the game will learn what kind of training and preparation could make them good candidates.

The attendees will be playing football between the panel discussions, giving themselves full days of physical and mental challenges. Speakers will include Panthers coach Ron Rivera; his wife and former WNBA coach Stephanie Rivera; and their daughter, Courtney, who has done some scouting as an intern for the team. Former Dolphins executive Dawn Aponte -- who now works for Stephen Ross' RSE Ventures, a sports and entertainment investment firm -- will discuss how she broke into football by parlaying an accounting internship with the Jets into becoming a salary-cap expert.

"The objective here is something that we haven't had," said Aponte, who earned her law degree at night while working for the Jets so she could advance in the organization. "It's to create an awareness of the pathways for women to pursue careers in football. This particular group of women, they're a unique group because they have personal knowledge and played the game."

Rapoport, who was hired by the NFL last year, comes from the world of women's football, having played quarterback at the top levels and flag football for the Canadian national team. With her background, she knows many talented women who play the game but aren't connected to the NFL pipeline or don't know how to get the right training for jobs.

The NFL has had some firsts in the last two years -- Sarah Thomas became the league's first full-time female official, and Kathryn Smith was named the first woman to work full time on an NFL coaching staff. Jen Welter, another former pro player, made headlines in 2015 with her coaching internship with the Cardinals.

Like Aponte, each of those women had to make her own path to the opportunity. Rapoport hopes to make that process a little easier for women in the future.

Participants at the forum can add their names to the NFL's database of job applicants. But more important, Rapoport's goal is to have attendees leave the forum with a plan of action, whether it's starting to officiate local football games or volunteering to coach.

The event culminates in -- what else? -- a tackle football game among the participants on Saturday, before the final Pro Bowl practice. Women and men will be playing the same game at one of the NFL's premier events on the football calendar.

Those players might not be ready for some NFL jobs for years. But the hope is that one day a woman from this audience might be using McKenna-Doyle's technology by donning her own headset as a member of an NFL coaching staff.