The Philadelphia 76ers have hired Annelie Schmittel as their new vice president of player development, making her the highest-ranking woman in their organization. It's a job in the league that's normally filled by men and former players, but Schmittel, who previously worked in player engagement for the Oakland Raiders, has never let that stop her. In the role, she'll work with players and their families to support personal and professional goals.
Schmittel spoke to espnW about how she has learned to connect with and help athletes develop on and off the field.
espnW: Why do you think it's important for women to hold leadership positions in men's sports?
Annelie Schmittel: What I've learned in working with male athletes, in particular, is that you're doing them a disservice if you only surround them with the same types of people. That's not what the real world looks like or how it operates. So, I think adding diversity anywhere at any level is important, having a diversity of thought and interactions. Players, in particular, benefit from different perspectives. So, I'm glad to be a part of an organization that believes in that.
espnW: Is there a specific player you've worked with whom you're really proud of?
AS: Bruce Irvin is probably a great one to feature. Bruce came from the [Seattle] Seahawks to the Raiders. When he came to us, he had this rough-around-the-edges image. He walked that walk where people distanced themselves [from him].
I would just always tell him, "I see you for so much more than the player that you are. You are a great player, but I know that you want to do more than just play football."
So, we got him back into school. He graduated from West Virginia. He became the Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee last year for the Oakland Raiders. He just bought into the process of wanting to be more than an athlete and wanting to do better for his son and his family. We spent a lot of time together building the plan.
espnW: What's the key to forging those types of bonds?
AS: If you are just focusing on the player, you're almost limiting what can be done. But, if you're including everybody else -- family members, everyone in our organization who will work with them -- and you educate them and empower them in a positive way, then I think you can reach a different level, a higher level of excellence.
espnW: How do you involve families in a player's off-the-court success?
AS: One of my favorite things we did [in Oakland] was a family boot camp. Each rookie -- we flew in their family members and did a weekend-long program with them, talking about expectations, financial education and mental health. We address family dynamics and just spend a lot of time with each of them building relationships. I can't even tell you how positive that was not only for us, but also for the players as they worked on their rookie season. And then also for the parents, because they knew exactly what was coming, what the time demands were, how they could help, how they could hurt the first year of the players. It was also an incredible opportunity for our coaches because, again, it fast-tracked some of the getting to know [them] and getting to know the past of the players and how they respond to situations and challenges and what makes them them.
espnW: This job is traditionally held by men or former players. Why did you choose to go into this field?
AS: I would not take no for an answer; I knew that there was a way for me to help athletes in that role. I think I was maybe just a little bit too stubborn and too competitive. I'd look at those one, two, three women in sports who did achieve greatness and have great leadership roles, and I just wanted to follow them. And I put my head down and worked, and it got me here, which is obviously an amazing opportunity.
espnW: What does it mean to you to be one of the most senior female executives in the NBA now?
AS: If me being in this position helps showcase that it's possible and it helps young girls and professional women who want to work in this environment to stop listening to all the no's and, "That's a man's job" and, "You have to be a former player to get this role" and, "This isn't an environment for a woman," then that's great. Because I've heard all of that, too.
But there is room for more at the top, and it's important for me to send that elevator back down. I look forward to the day when a woman being hired in sports is more about what they've done to get there and not so much, "Oh my gosh, she's a woman in this role."
We probably have a ways to go until then, but I think overall, it's slowly going in the right direction. Even at the Sixers, having Lindsey [Harding] as a full-time scout -- that's amazing. I think having her in a role so close to basketball and on-court decisions proves that when you're hiring the right person, it doesn't matter what gender they are, where they're from or anything like that. It's about, "Is it the most qualified person that can help us achieve the goal and the mission and do so with integrity?"