The Nat Coombs Column: How Phoebe Schecter is helping forge a path for women in the NFL

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It takes a certain type of character to want to coach in the NFL.

The complexity and intensity of the game, underpinned by the detail and intricacy, require a depth of knowledge and commitment that is most certainly not a nine-to-five, punch in, punch out type of gig. Days typically start before 4 a.m. and roll deep into the night, with team activity and practice a respite from never-ending meetings in windowless offices. Sleep? If you nick a luxurious few hours, often at the facility, you're doing OK.

Throw in the high-pressure situations that a struggling team can find itself in, 24/7 press and social media scrutiny and the small matter of managing a locker room full of elite athletes -- often intimidating alpha characters intent on success -- you start to get the picture. Coaching football is undoubtedly for a select few. Or rather, for a select few men.

One of the real paradoxes of the NFL is that the innovation and progressiveness delivered on the field isn't always matched off it. Despite the introduction of the Rooney Rule -- which requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs -- the percentage of head coaches from ethnic minorities is still low.

In terms of ownership, this ratio drops even lower. Social activism divides players, teams and indeed fans. Like virtually all major professional sports, the NFL is not yet an environment in which gay players feel comfortable to go public with their sexuality.

Of course, the altruism and philanthropic activity from many players (and teams) is impressive, and the league supports a wide range of charitable causes with vigour. The game offers a route to a better life for many young athletes born into difficult circumstances, and as its global appeal increases, so will that path widen.

But for all of this, and for all the strategic progression that the brilliant minds of Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and so on introduce into the game, other elements of the NFL rarely move.

Though one quite significant aspect of the game could be changing.

It's always been a man's world, the NFL, but perhaps not for much longer. At least not exclusively.

Phoebe Schecter is one of a handful of trailblazing women who has earned a spot on the coaching staff of an NFL team -- the Buffalo Bills -- having recently completed a two-year placement as one of Sean McDermott's crew.

Landing in Buffalo, as one of the few women to be offered the opportunity to coach, certainly wasn't a coincidence. Kim Pegula, the Bills' owner, is presiding over one of the most progressive franchises in the league.

"Being with the Buffalo Bills was the best situation I could have been a part of," Schecter says.

"They already had a female owner, there are so many females in the building as athletic trainers that it was just natural to have a female (coach) there," she says of the NFL team that became the first to hire a full-time female coaching assistant in Kathryn Smith in 2016.

"The players didn't think twice about it and I think when that's an easy transition like that, you don't even think about the fact you're female; you're just a coach."

Indeed, most of the early challenges for Schecter were self-inflicted.

"A lot of the pressure I put on myself, more than anyone [else]...

"[I knew] whatever I did would reflect on any other females trying to get into that position," she says.

This forward-thinking Bills environment helped counter any scepticism that Schecter may have met from players, and as a former captain of the GB Women's team, Schecter also had an advantage over a number of male NFL coaches and plenty of front office personnel: playing experience.

"My first year I was with the defensive backs and coach Gil Byrd showed the players a video of me, and they were cheering, saying, 'She can tackle better than some of you guys.'"

This valuable element that Schecter brings to her coaching is similar to another player turned coach, Jen Welter, the very first female coaching intern in the NFL, who went on to a full-time coaching position with the Atlanta Legends of the (now defunct) AAF professional league.

Welter had previously won a spot on the Texas Revolution men's indoor American football team. When at the Arizona Cardinals, journalist Mike Freeman referenced a message he received from a current player about Welter that read: "The truth is, she has more playing experience than some of the coaches who coach me now."

Bruce Arians was the Cardinals' head coach during Welter's time in Arizona, so it's no coincidence that Arian's new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, features two women on his full-time coaching staff this season -- Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning coach) and Lori Locust (assistant defensive line coach).

Women have played college football in the U.S., but no woman has yet played in the NFL, although this summer, Carli Lloyd -- one of Team USA's World Cup-winning soccer stars -- trained with the Philadelphia Eagles and rumours abounded that she was given offers by various teams to join them as a kicker.

Executive positions at NFL teams are also still markedly male-dominated, but as reported in the Wall Street Journal this week, the Eagles front-office team includes five women in key positions. Will more teams follow Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie's approach, and will this filter down into more coaching positions filled by women?

"Until there are enough women who have come through the ranks and tested the waters, people aren't ready to take that risk yet," Schecter says.

A beneficiary of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which enables work experience for aspiring coaches of minority backgrounds, she feels women would benefit from further legislation -- similar to the Rooney Rule -- ensuring that teams include both male and female applicants in their recruitment process.

"It would be a great first step to take in more applicants and look at them at face value," Schecter says.

Much like players given a shot in training camp, female coaches need to be given the opportunity to shine, she says.

"Once you're in there, it's all about proving yourself and proving you belong there as much as anyone else."

Will we see our first female head coach or GM within the next 20 years?

"I think we will," Schecter says. "I think that's a lot closer than we're anticipating."