It’s no secret that professional sports are a male-dominated industry. The most popular leagues, the highest earning analysts, the most-watched sporting events, the coaches—the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA actually just hired a male first-time head coach who is now the highest-paid coach in league history. The male presence in sports is so heavy, that when there’s even a possibility that a woman might enter that space, it’s a big deal. Earlier this week, it was announced that the San Francisco Giants of the MLB were interviewing Alyssa Nakken for their open manager position, and she is believed to be the first woman ever interviewed for this role in the league. Any time an NBA HC position opens up, Becky Hammon’s name is thrown into the mix as a possible candidate. We seem to be inching closer to the moment a woman is hired to coach an NBA or MLB team, but how real is that possibility for a league like the NFL?
In the history of the league, we’ve seen three female referees, the first being Sarah Thomas who officiated her first NFL game in 2015. Over the last few years, we’ve been hearing about NFL teams hiring their first full-time female athletic trainers, including the Green Bay Packers, who hired Erin Roberge in 2022. Along with Roberge, there are 20 other female athletic trainers around the league (most teams have about 5 or so trainers).
There’s also a growing number of women in executive positions with NFL teams, including Jody Allen (Seahawks), Gayle Benson (Saints), and Kim Pegula (Bills). Violet Bidwill (Cardinals) was the trailblazer in this area, when she became the first woman to be principal owner of an NFL team in 1947 after the death of her husband Charles. Yes, there seems to be a pattern of nepotism when it comes to women owning football teams, but it’s notable nonetheless!
When it comes to a league as physical as the NFL, will we ever see a woman offered a head coaching opportunity? We have yet to hear about any serious female candidates for anything more than a position coach (no, the rumors about the Browns wanting to interview Condoleezza Rice for their HC opening several years ago never came to fruition). Jen Welter, currently the linebackers coach for the XFL’s Vegas Vipers, became the first woman to coach in the NFL back in 2015, when she was hired as a coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals. Lori Locust, currently the defensive quality control coach for the Tennessee Titans, began coaching in the NFL in 2018. Since then, she and Maral Javadifar became the first female coaches to ever win a Super Bowl, when they were both with Tampa Bay during the 2020 season. There’s also Jennifer King, who became the first black female coach in the NFL when she became an assistant running backs coach for the Washington Commanders. She helped coach Antonio Gibson to his only 1,000+ yard rushing season, and is in her fourth season with the team.
The number of women in coaching roles with NFL teams is obviously miniscule when you look at the overall amount of coaches around the league, but over time we may begin to see an increase here, small as it may be. In a push for more coaching diversity throughout the league, the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule in 2022 by requiring that all teams hire a minority offensive assistant coach, which includes racial minorities as well as women. Do I think we’ll ever see a female head coach in the NFL? I’m not sure; It’s probably a long way down the road if it does happen, but the strides women are making in professional sports recently deserve to be not only recognized, but applauded.