<
>

The women who will literally be plugged in to the virtual NFL draft

After feeling alone for the first dozen years of her football career, Tampa Bay's assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust is now one of five full-time female coaches in the NFL. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

Salli Clavelle answers her phone, shoos her mom away and tightly shuts the door to her childhood bedroom. She has work to do, and this work is for her ears only. Clavelle, who is sheltering in place with her parents during the coronavirus pandemic, is a pro personnel analyst for the San Francisco 49ers. And it's NFL draft season.

"I have to close the door and tell her, 'You'll have to find out on draft day what I'm talking about!'" Clavelle said with a laugh. "On draft night I'll be logged in to our virtual system. Probably gonna be pizza, wings, couple of soft drinks, sitting in front of the TV and laptop, waiting for our turn to pick."

Clavelle, in her second year working for the reigning NFC champions, is far from the only female coach who will be on duty during the 2020 NFL draft starting Thursday night. This April, the NFL has more women in coaching positions than ever before. Five years ago, Jen Welter made headlines as the first female NFL coach when the Arizona Cardinals hired her as a coaching intern. Since then, there have been eight full-time female coaches -- five of them are active today -- and 14 female coaching interns.

Carly Helfand, a 24-year-old finishing her first year as a scouting assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will also be sequestered while her parents watch the draft in the next room.

"I'm going to set up my own mini war room so that no one can bother me," Helfand said. "Kind of just lock in. This is the first time I'm experiencing this, so just be ready. If one of my bosses comes to me with a question, be ready to answer it. Have no distractions but also just take it all in 'cause it's going to be a pretty wild experience."

Lori Locust, the assistant defensive line coach for the Bucs, joined Tampa Bay after most of the draft work was complete last season. This year, she'll get to play a bigger role, albeit at home, with her 23-year-old son and newly adopted dog in the other room.

"We're set up as a defensive staff to watch as a group virtually," she said. "We've looked at these guys probably two and three times over. Reports have been done for a couple weeks now, so hopefully there won't be any surprises last-minute. I might have a bottle of wine and some little snacks, and certainly if we get the draft picks we want, we'll all be celebrating virtually."

The number of women coaches in the NFL started to jump after the league hired Sam Rapoport, who is currently the NFL senior director of diversity and inclusion. The former women's pro tackle football player and NFL intern was named NFL senior director of football development in 2016 and has since helped 89 women secure coaching positions in college and professional football. Her secret weapon: the Women's Careers in Football Forum.

The forum, held annually since 2017, began as an open summit for women interested in working in football and is now an exclusive, invite-only event tied to the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Each year, invitations go out to 40 fully vetted, qualified candidates. In the last week of February, they gather with top-level coaches and executives, share best practices, and learn the ins and outs of all the major jobs in football operations. Pro and collegiate clubs receive résumés and informational pamphlets for each participant before they get to the forum, and roughly 100 one-on-one meetings between candidates and executives take place over the forum's two days.

In the first two years, only nine NFL teams were involved. In years three and four, more than 25 teams attended.

"The pinch-me moment at this year's forum was that we had four female coaches or scouts sitting on a panel teaching, and all had been in the participant seat just two years ago," Rapoport said.

Included in that forum foursome was Cleveland Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson, who earned her first intern opportunity in the NFL after attending the inaugural forum.

"The launching platform for me and my career was the forum," Brownson told "Spain and Company" as part of the show's series of "Game Changers" interviews. "That was how that connection was established between me and the Jets. Without that, it was really hard to navigate and get in front of people."

Listen: Sarah Spain talks to Callie Brownson, Cleveland Browns chief of staff, about being a game-changer.

Rapoport knew from day one that improving diversity in the NFL was about improving the pipeline for female talent and removing the barriers that have traditionally kept women from breaking through. Her plan was simple: Vet the candidates, and put them in a room with people who can hire them.

Forum regular Ron Rivera met longtime semi-pro women's football player (and one-fourth of the aforementioned foursome) Jennifer King at the 2018 forum. He reached out to have her join the Panthers as a coaching intern for two offseasons, then called her again in February to offer a role as a full-season coaching intern with his new team, the Redskins.

"In this business, it's about mentoring, sponsoring and advocating," Rivera told "Spain and Company" a few days after attending the 2020 forum. "The people who seem to get opportunities are the ones that are being advocated the most, whether it's through word of mouth, whether it's through media, whether it's social media, whether it's through television."

Locust, another member of the forum foursome, knows better than anyone else how a meaningful connection can jumpstart a career. Now in her second year with the Bucs (her first year with two guys named Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski), Locust spent the first dozen or so of her 14 years in football balancing a job in insurance and raising two sons while taking every opportunity to coach. It was tough to explain to friends and family why she was willing to miss out on social events to intern or apprentice with high school or semi-pro teams, especially when there weren't female coaches to point to as examples of what her hard work could lead to. But after she attended the first forum in 2017, everything changed.

"It was a sense of community I had never had before," Locust said of being in a room full of women who loved football. "Even though you can stand on your own and there are things you want to take care of by yourself, there is power in numbers. Not only did it bring that sense of community and connection to other women, it also created credibility and viability to women who are in this for the right reasons: to earn positions based on qualifications and not gender or a publicity stunt."

Listen: Sarah Spain talks to Lori Locust, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach, about her success in the league.

Clavelle, the final member of the forum foursome, first attended in 2018.

"I already had networked with some organizations before I went, but listening to the speakers, they taught me how to continue to engage with those contacts," Clavelle said. "One of the speakers mentioned writing handwritten letters, so immediately the very next day, I wrote a handwritten letter to all 32 organizations, telling them who I was, exactly what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it and that I just needed a little help doing it."

She got that help in the form of Rapoport, who gave Clavelle's résumé to Niners GM John Lynch after the forum.

"Lynch had reached out to us asking for three or four of the best résumés," Rapoport said. "They had a rigorous application process, and Lynch selected Salli -- she beat out everyone, all the guys and the other women. That Salli and John Lynch experience was exactly what we were trying to make happen. A GM calling us saying, 'We need people,' we give them people that have college experience, and they can call those college coaches and ask about them."

Almost without exception, Rapoport and the female coaches interviewed for this story emphasized how important it is for NFL teams to hire qualified women -- not tokens -- and treat them like the rest of the staff when they arrive. Rapoport says the most common concern she hears from female coaches is being othered, either by noninclusive language or by being singled out with an apology when someone curses or cracks a joke.

Rapoport knew things were starting to change when she heard about a coach who said the simple words "him or her" in a team meeting in reference to players seeking advice from a coach. It wasn't something that would make headlines on a sports blog the next day -- most of the people in the meeting that day probably didn't even notice -- but a head coach in the NFL casually using "him or her" to refer to the members of his coaching staff signaled a change that has been years in the making.

Listen: Sarah Spain talks to Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity and inclusion, about her influence in the league.

Rapoport believes the NFL teams without any female coaches will start to realize they're behind the curve, especially as success stories of female coaches continue to pour in and pressure arrives from the public. The talent pool is so rich and the competition so heavy. At this year's forum, the Bills offered two women summer coaching internships on the spot.

"It's about the competitive nature of our clubs," Rapoport said. "The reality is if you consider 100 percent of the talent pool and everyone has an opportunity to get in, the best will hopefully rise to the top."