NFL diversity push spurs another milestone: Two female coaches, referee in Super Bowl LV

Sarah Thomas set to make history as first woman to officiate in Super Bowl (2:15)

As Sarah Thomas is set to make history, she describes what it means to her to be the first woman to officiate in the Super Bowl. (2:15)

TAMPA BAY -- For a brief moment Monday morning, Maral Javadifar thought she would avoid the questions.

Sitting down for the first interview session of Super Bowl LV's virtual opening night, Javadifar, the 30-year-old assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hoped what had publicly defined her career wouldn't dominate interviews with media members jammed in her Zoom queue.

Instead, the first question set the stage:

Could you talk us through the first couple seasons you and assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust have had together in Tampa? We've talked to [Buccaneers] coach Bruce Arians about his commitment to diversity. What does that mean in practice?

"Katie [Sowers] was the first woman to be in the Super Bowl last year," Javadifar said later with a laugh. "I was excited, I was like, 'Oh, Katie dealt with that stuff already. We don't have to.' But that's not the case, and that's OK."

Always a first, Javadifar and Locust are seconds, following in the footsteps of Sowers as they take their place on the sideline at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday night at Super Bowl LV (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS). And for the first time, there will be a female official with Sarah Thomas assigned as the game's down judge.

But with a championship on the line, Locust and Javadifar aren't focused on their place in history. They are focused on the job at hand, helping the Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs.

"M.J. [Maral Javadifar] and I are here to help Tampa Bay win," Locust said. "It wouldn't matter if we're second in or 273rd in. We acknowledge the fact that there hasn't been many before us, but it's not anything that we keep in the forefront of what we do on a daily basis."

Even so, women coaching in consecutive Super Bowls signals that the efforts of the NFL, led by Sam Rapoport, senior director of diversity and inclusion, are working. With just eight total women coaching in the NFL, there's still a long way to go before women achieve ubiquity in the NFL, but Sunday is an important step.

"It can start Sunday with a Bucs Super Bowl win," said Jennifer King, 36, newly promoted to assistant running backs coach with the Washington Football team. "That would be a huge milestone."

When Rakeem Nunez-Roches has a question, he knows exactly who to ask.

The Buccaneers defensive lineman seeks out his assistant defensive line coach because he feels most comfortable with her.

"Although she's a coach, you still get that nurturing," he said. "She's hard-core, but I guess it's a mother instinct. When you're wrong or you feel you have a gray area, 'Let me ask Coach Lo.' She's going to shoot it straight, and she's going to tell you, but it's going to come differently than if you asked a male coach. You've got to know the stuff when you go to ask them."

Locust, a 56-year-old mother of two, is a retired semi-professional defensive lineman after playing four seasons with the Central Penn Vipers of the Independent Women's Football League. She began the pivot from insurance to coaching after a career-ending knee injury in 2007.

Rising through the coaching ranks from high school to semi-pro, arena and now professional football, Locust has been praised for coupling her no-nonsense attitude with an ability to teach. The combination has endeared her to scores of male athletes.

"Players are more likely to be vulnerable about what they don't know and feel like they're less judged, and I've seen that for years and years," said Sowers, 34, who spent four seasons on the 49ers' staff as an offensive assistant. "That's a huge asset for a team when you have a coach where players feel safe, too. Whether it's something about an injury or something about the playbook that they don't understand, have someone they feel comfortable coming to and talking about it."

Every coach takes a different approach to the job, but other female coaches interviewed pointed to a few common traits -- such as the players feeling comfortable asking them questions -- as reasons why they believe women make successful coaches.

"It's another voice from another perspective," King said. "I think that's what diversity brings you. You get to be diverse in perspective. Everyone comes from somewhere different with different backgrounds and different experiences."

For Arians, who hired Jen Welter as a preseason intern in 2015 to be the NFL's first female coach while he was head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, that ability to coach comes down to an ability to teach -- abilities he doesn't believe are defined by gender.

"If you can teach, you can coach," Arians said. "As far as the women, it was time. It was time for that door to be knocked down and allow them because they've been putting in time, and they're very, very qualified. The ones we have are overly qualified."

Before he met Locust, Nunez-Roches admits he wasn't sold on having a female coach. He laughs about it now, but at the time, he was skeptical.

"I didn't even think that she would be so hands-on," he said. "As far as being in practices and running the drills and pass rushing and run and understanding leverage and things like that, it just opened my eyes.

"Women are allowed to do this game too. I'm not going to lie, at first I was iffy about it. I've never had a woman D-line coach or a woman coaching football, period. To have her there and the thing she did and contributed to our D-line, I tip my hat off to her."

Ron Kerr, who hired Locust as an assistant for the semi-pro Central Penn Piranha in 2013, had a similar experience with his players.

"When I told the guys, they were like, 'What are you doing? Are you kidding me? We're going to be the laughing stock. Are you crazy?" Kerr said. "Within a month's time, they all loved her. I looked like a genius, and I had no idea. I remind those guys every chance I get. 'Remember, this was a lady that was going to make us a laughing stock. Now who's laughing?"

As he evaluated her football knowledge, Kerr assigned Locust to work with the tight ends. He figured his most veteran group wouldn't need as much coaching, but Locust proved she wasn't afraid to speak up, earning her immediate respect.

"I'll be honest with you, she didn't take their s---," Kerr said. "When they messed up, she would stop practice and dig into their rear end and tell them, 'Hey, you stepped the wrong way. What are you doing?' I think we all were just, like, 'Wow.'

"It doesn't matter if she has a ponytail or not, she can coach football."

Locust's attention to detail also signaled to Joe Headen, who hired her as a volunteer coach at Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that she had the ability to go far as a coach, but he never thought it would carry her here.

"That's Lo's No. 1 strength," said Headen, who worked with Locust for nearly a decade. "She's extremely detailed, and she does a good job of communicating that. But I'd be lying if I sat here and said her detail orientation and everything else was going to lead her to coaching in the Super Bowl, but my goodness. Her prowess has shown that, and now here we are and she's going to be coaching in the dadgum Super Bowl."

Javadifar and Locust aren't the first women to coach in the Super Bowl, but they're on the forefront of breaking the gender barrier in NFL coaching. Sunday will mark the first time two women have coached in the game.

It's progress toward the kind of inclusion Rapoport envisioned when she led development of the first Women's Careers in Football Forum in 2017. On the cusp of hosting its fifth annual event, the initiative has helped place 118 women in NFL and college football jobs.

King, who attended the forum in 2018 before being hired as a Carolina Panthers intern, remembers being pleasantly surprised at the demand to attend when she realized she had to apply for a spot.

"It wasn't something you could just go to because they didn't have enough spaces," King said. "There were more than enough people qualified to be able to go."

Locust is also a product of the program, one that connects women with NFL general managers, college and NFL head coaches and other executives through panel discussions, breakout sessions and networking events.

"Just putting them in the same room created networks, not only between the women and leadership, but also amongst the women themselves," Rapoport said. "And what that created was a pipeline to pull from."

Most years, the small group of female NFL coaches keep the pipeline going by meeting up at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

A year ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his wife, Jane, hosted a dinner to get to know all of the women.

"We have a close relationship," Rapoport said. "And I'm looking forward to bringing more women into that mix and bringing some of the women who I don't know as well and they don't know as well even closer to us. It's really helpful to have that support system."

With the COVID-19 pandemic changing their plans this year, the coaches instead rely on group chats to stay in touch and support one another. Locust, King and Sowers keep one going throughout the year.

"It's great to have someone essentially in your same situation that you can chat with and bounce ideas off of or just see how their organization does things or anything that you have on your mind, you can definitely put it in the group chat if you need to," King said. "It's nice to have those people kind of in your same position."

Creating and maintaining those relationships is crucial in the effort to grow women's involvement in the game.

"The guys sort of have it automatically in the coaching tree -- 'I coached with him at this college. He and I played high school ball together,'" Locust said. "They have that automatic connection -- ours has to be built, so it's been nice to be on the forefront of the building of the framework for the rest of the women coaches that are going to be coming in [after] us."

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic curbing internships and opportunities, Locust is convinced there would have been even more women on the sidelines during the 2020 season.

Even so, women made massive strides toward achieving the normalized presence they want in the NFL.

For Rapoport, the best example of that came in Week 3 when the Cleveland Browns took on Washington, pitting King against Callie Brownson, the Browns' chief of staff. Making it even more special, Thomas was an official for that game. It was the first time in NFL history there was a female coach on each sideline and a female official on the crew.

"Even just seeing that, I just got goosebumps," Rapoport said. "That was a moment that so many of us were watching the screen and saying, 'This is what we are trying to achieve.' It's not the gimmicky first. That's the reality of ubiquity; it just so happens that there's females at all of those positions that are traditionally held by men."

Sowers still remembers her whirlwind Super Bowl opening night a year ago in Miami. Like Javadifar and Locust, her gender dominated the questions. But it's her answer to one reporter's query of how it feels to be the first that really sticks with her.

"It's important to have a first because obviously there always needs to be one to break barriers," she remembers saying. "What's more important is that you're not the last."

Sowers paused retelling the story.

"Little did I know the very next year there would be two women in coaching positions and Sarah Thomas officiating the Super Bowl," Sowers said. "That whole idea of growth, it came even faster than I realized. And next year, hopefully we'll have women on both sides of the Super Bowl teams with coaches and personnel and just women involved everywhere."