As an avid football fan “by marriage” and out of desperation to have conversations with my spouse during the football season, observing women in various capacities in the NFL is a welcome change.
In September 2021, the NFL opened its season with a record 12 women working as coaches. This reflects the NFL’s effort to provide greater opportunity for women in a sport dominated by men.
Women’s Careers in Football Forum, created by the NFL in 2017, has resulted in women with full-time jobs in the sport. One-hundred women have obtained NFL jobs since the program began and dozens more have been hired in football jobs at the high school and collegiate level.
Three women were on the football field in an official capacity for a regular season game on Sunday. Sept. 20, 2020, for the first time in NFL history. There was one female coach for both teams and a female official. For Washington, Callie Brownson is the chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns and Jennifer King is the NFL’s first full-time assistant coach for the Browns.
The referee, Sarah Thomas, was the first full-time referee in the league. She was the first woman to officiate a major college game, first to officiate a bowl game, and the first to officiate in a Big Ten stadium. On April 8, 2015, Thomas was hired as the first full-time female official in NFL history for the 2020 season.
Another milestone in NFL history was the game in September 2021 between the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina. Maia Chaka was the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game. Chaka stated, “This historic moment to me is an honor and it’s a privilege I’ve been chosen to represent women and women of color in the most popular sport in America, proving I can defy the odds and overcome.” She began her career officiating college football in the NCAA Pac-12 Conference and Conference USA.
In the NFL’s history of over 100 years there have been few women owners of teams. Violet Bidwill Wolfner is regarded as the first woman to own an NFL team, taking over the Chicago Cardinals in 1947 after the death of her husband, Charles Bidwill Sr. The Cardinals moved to St Louis in 1960 and Wolfner owned the team until her death in 1962.
The Cardinals, who are now in Arizona, remain in the Bidwill family. Presently, there are three women who are principal team owners: Virginia Halas McCaskey of the Chicago Bears; Martha Firestone Ford of the Detroit Lions; and Amy Adams Strunk of the Tennessee Titans. Kin Pegula is a co-owner of the Buffalo Bills along with her husband Terry.
Women now fill 38% of jobs in the NFL’s management office. Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion stated, “We have females at almost every level, except for head coach and general manager spots, which will come soon.”
There are no women head coaches in the NFL and the majority of the 32 teams in the NFL do not include a woman on the coaching staff.
While the NFL has taken major strides in just a few years, they have a long way to go in gender equity.
Editor’s note: Diane Terry Smith wrote this for Women’s Watch.
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