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Female football assistants on the rise show they have a place on the gridiron

Intern linebacker coach Jen Welter (C) of the Arizona Cardinals watches from the sidelines

(Christian Petersen via Getty Images)

Flash back to the days when NFL sidelines were primarily a man’s domain.  

Whoa. Surreal, huh?

Now, click back to the present, with NFL teams starting to bring female assistant coaches on board, a movement that could become as common as, say, shoulder pads, helmets, and questionable calls.

OK, fine. The latter characterization’s under review.

But what’s undeniably confirmed is women comprise about half of all NFL fans, but currently, just a third of league employees, reported CBSNews.com.

“There are jobs for women involved in the NFL and they’re not on the outside, they’re on the inside. They’re making decisions,” said Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

In Tampa Bay, for example, the Bucs added two female assistant coaches, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar, according to SI.com. In doing so, the Bucs became the first team in NFL history to have two female coaches on staff.

Yep; they, um, bucked the trend.

Fifteen yards for unsportsmanlike banter? If you say so. 

Chatter aside, Locust, the squad’s assistant defensive line coach, formerly served as the defensive line coach for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football during the league’s inaugural season this spring, the site stated. Last year, in 2018, she was a defensive coaching intern for the Baltimore Ravens during the team’s training camp.

For her part, most recently, Javadifar, the strength and conditioning coach, worked as a physical therapist at Avant Physical Therapy in Seattle, after completing her sports physical therapy residency at Virginia Commonwealth in August of 2018.

Heading west, in San Francisco — in 2017, of course — the San Francisco 49ers hired Katie Sowers as an assistant. According to Outsports, she became the NFL’s second full-time assistant female coach and — male or female — the league’s first openly LGBT coach.

“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” said Sowers. “There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation.” She added, “The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people — no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”

Sowers has a fan in 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin. “Katie is a baller, 100 percent,” Goodwin told Bay Area radio station KNBR. “She understands the game. She’s very familiar with the game. She played in a women’s league and it may be a little different, but she definitely has the attitude it takes to be in that room. She brings a great vibe and she understands so I’m happy that she’s on staff.”

Seasonal Offensive Assistant Coach Katie Sowers looks on during the warm up

(Lachlan Cunningham via Getty Images)

Helping to further abet the cause of females interested in working in the NFL, the Women’s Careers in Football Forum helps the NFL identify qualified women, states Operations.NFL.com. The forum educates and connects qualified female candidates working in football operations. Participants interact with general managers, head coaches, and club executives in the NFL and college football programs. 

“We are actively expanding opportunities for women by identifying and developing qualified individuals as part of the NFL’s inclusion efforts,” said Troy Vincent, executive vice president of Football Operations.

The forum consists of two days of panel discussions, presentations, and breakout sessions to help participants broaden their network and gain industry insights, the site continues. That includes an exclusive look at areas like coaching, strength and conditioning, player personnel, and team operations.

Added Samantha Rapoport, NFL senior director of Football Development, “Women are vastly underrepresented in operations positions in sports. Our clubs understand the value of considering the entire talent pool during the hiring process. This program provides the opportunity for our teams to meet with driven and experienced women who have a strong desire to work in football and we’re proud of the progress we’ve seen in three years.”      

The site also states that between 2017-2018, 26 participants of the Women’s Careers in Football Forum with the NFL, college football, and the Alliance of American Football secured opportunities. This year, the number continues to rise.                

Now, all that’s not to say that hiring female assistant coaches in the NFL is universally applauded.

Just ask Sowers. 

In an interview on Fox Sports 1’s Fair Game with Kristine Leahy, she recounted the incident before she took her job as an offensive assistant with the 49ers in 2017, reported USAToday.com. “They felt the 49ers, because they knew how it was to have a woman on staff, that it’d be a better fit for me — that their organization was not yet ready to have a woman on staff,” Sowers said.

“(The unnamed team executive) went on to say that one of the coaches came up to him and said, ‘Where are we going to put her desk?’ He said, ‘Where we put everyone else’s desk.’ But that was another indicator to him that this organization is far from being ready.”

Sure, the snub hurt initially, but at the end of the day, said Sowers, it was all about the experience. 

“Although I hated hearing that, I loved the honesty. Because it meant that the words that he was saying was coming from the foundation of ignorance of the organization,” she noted. “But he understood the ignorance. Oftentimes we get caught up in what’s politically correct and hearing all these words that make us feel better … when often it could be lies. I’d rather hear the truth and ignorance. That’s where we create change.”

Assistant Defensive Line Coach Lori Locust looks on during OTA's with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

To that point, skeptics may say, ‘How can women coach when they’ve never played football?’ reported CBSNews.com. Well, some of the best coaches never played the game either. Representatives from other leagues, like Major League Baseball, are already turning to the NFL for advice on how to replicate this forum for their own sport.

Leaguewide acceptance or not, Jennifer Welter — the first woman ever to coach in the NFL when she served as an assistant coach intern for the Arizona Cardinals, according to TheOdysseyOnline.com, said she’s felt the love. One reason for that, Welter believes, is she had the juice to relate to players, according to Vogue.com.

“I think it’s even more of a challenge when you’re a woman who didn’t play the game because they can try and throw the ‘girl card,’ and they can also try and throw the ‘you didn’t play’ card,” said Welter, most recently a defensive specialist for the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football, according to Wikipedia.org

“When I was first hired,” noted Welter, “Michael Strahan said, ‘Of course the players will love her. She’s played more football than a lot of coaches in the NFL,’” according to Vogue.

Fueled by her unconventional coaching tactics, Welter also stands out. Case in point: She leveraged her Ph.D. in psychology and shared motivational notes with players. What’s more, at the conclusion of her internship, on game days, Welter maintained communication with them via text, continued Welter, who was featured in Mogul’s #IAmAMogul campaign as part of Women’s History Month in March 2016 for “changing the perception of what it means to be an NFL coach,” stated Vogue.

“I would tell them, ‘I’m always here for you.’ Those are the bonds and relationships that we formed,” she said. “People said, ‘This is the roughest, toughest sport on the face of the planet. Guys will not take coaching from a woman.’ Well, guess what? They took it every day in Arizona.”

In the meantime, the NBA’s no stranger to hiring female assistants itself. The Memphis Grizzlies hired ex-Notre Dame women’s associate head coach Niele Ivey as an assistant on Taylor Jenkins’ staff.

Ivey spent the past 12 seasons at her alma mater with the last four as Notre Dame’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. She helped the Fighting Irish go 385-55 with seven Final Four berths, six appearances in the NCAA title game, and the 2018 national championship.

Yep. She’s become as much a part of the league as three-point shots, buzzer-beaters, and the maddening double dribble.

Best of all: no review necessary.

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