The National Football League is sparing no expense to celebrate it’s 100th anniversary season, a century of growth, development and change as the league morphed from its formative years as the domain of an upstart band of gamblers and bootleggers to its place now as, unquestionably, the country’s dominant sporting enterprise and the envy of other sports.
And while that growth, eventually, came to be more inclusionary on the field with regard to race on the playing rosters – diversity in coaching, management and ownership remains a different matter entirely – the idea of gender equality in pro football has seemingly only begin to even be haphazardly chatted about at the highest levels in recent years. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, for one, hopes that reverses course, drastically, for the better. And sooner rather than later.
Arians’ recent hiring of two female assistant coaches — Lori Locust (assistant defensive line) and Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning) — quickly became a national news story because of how unusual it was; the fact that 100 years into the NFL something like that would still be considered a curious novelty doesn’t quite sit well with Arians. For good reason.
Like with many massive corporations, change can come in the smallest of increments, and cracking the Ol’ Boys Club ain’t ever easy. Perhaps the inherent machismo that comes from the violent nature of this game explains why the NFL lags behind, say, MLB and the NBA in being more open and willing to embrace at least some semblance of gender equality through the front office ranks. And, perhaps, hearing a progressive leader like Arians (who also has the most racially diverse staff in the game) speak passionately about such issues will influence more of his peers to do the same.
Does it strike anyone else as odd that almost entirely, across the board in coaching staff after coaching staff and front office after front office, there are almost no females in outward-facing prominent football roles to be found (especially those who are not related to the owner)? A full century in, shouldn’t at least a modicum of gender balance be the norm? Something more than this?
“It really should be,” Arians told me last week at the NFL owner’s meetings in Arizona, “because when I think back to the best teachers I ever had, most of them are female, alright. In football, we’re glorified school teachers (as coaches). You can know all the football in the world, but if you can’t teach it? So why not take a great teacher of any gender and let them help your players. So, yeah, I don’t see it as an issue, and I’m looking forward to the day when it’s not news.”
Preach on, coach.
Arians has seen with his own eyes the impact that can be made from the different teaching styles and communication avenues and life experiences that a woman can bring to a coaching role. He championed Jennifer Welter when he was head coach of the Cardinals, bringing her on board as an assistant coaching intern in the summer of 2015, making her widely believed to be the first female coach in league history.
“Our linebackers went straight to Jen, because she had a different way of teaching,” Arians said. “And the players in Birmingham (where she is coaching in the AAF), they absolutely love her as a coach. So, every NFL player is going to look at you and say, ‘How can you make me better.’ If you have an answer, you’re in. If you can’t answer the question you don’t belong there anyway. But they can answer the question.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that this is taking place in Tampa Bay. The Glazer family, as owners, have been welcoming to diverse candidates for decades, dating back to hiring Tony Dungy at a time when many did not embrace his reserved style, to giving a very young Raheem Morris his first shot at head coach to hiring Lovie Smith in 2014 and giving him significant authority over all football operations.
Of the Bucs’ seven vice presidents, four are female, and Darcie Glazer Kassewitz has been a leading proponent for getting more women involved in the NFL, participating in forums at the combine and overseeing one of the largest girls flag football events in the country. The Bucs also hired women directly involved with football last year, with Mickey Grace a football-operations intern and Shana Sunseri an intern with the training staff. Both were very impressive, I’m told, and I’d suspect that we continue to see more openness to this across the board in Tampa.
Elsewhere, um, I’m not quite so sure. If anything, consider me a skeptic that this will spread quickly.
I’m not going to be naïve to the obvious dynamics at play here. Football as the ultimate “man’s sport” is an idea that will die hard, if at all. Of course, an argument for a more inclusionary environment towards women in football can be made without any regard to having “played the game” at the NFL level. So many of the league’s best coaches and executives never came close to achieving what even the 53rd man on their roster did in terms of playing prowess.
One would hope in the year 2019 that most reasonable people would understand that you don’t have to have been sacked by a 280-pound defensive end tearing free on the blindside to fully understand offensive line concepts and protection schemes. And to imply that only the male brain could somehow best understand how to teach football, or motivate athletes, or evaluate game film and college prospects, I would hope we could all agree, is completely silly and backwards.
It’s much more a matter of opportunity (technically, lack thereof) than it is proficiency or ability. Access is power.
So how far away are we from the point at which an NFL team has a female as primary position coach and not just an assistant? Or as, gasp, dare I say it, a coordinator? Or, maybe, a national scout? (I won’t dare even allow myself to ponder the concept of a female head coach or, say, assistant GM or something like that. Baby steps – 100 years in! – and all).
“Probably five years,” Arians said after pondering it for a minute. “I hope sooner.”
Forgive me for not holding my breath.
I hope BA is right, but he is a rare iconoclast in an industry that is most often fixated on maintaining norms and doing it the way we’ve always done it and, last but never least, job preservation. While we have certainly seen a revolution of sorts in terms of teams embracing younger GMs who lack much of a playing background and who rely on data and analytics in more overt ways … that’s still a far cry from having women in multiple NFL organizations seriously involved in the selection of – or coaching of – a seventh-round pick, let alone a first-round pick.
Arians pointed to the work being done in the Alliance of American Football as part of his hope for better things on the horizon. He sees it as a proving ground for female coaches, but, of course, with that league threatening to dissolve before its first playoff games are played, I’m not sure its efforts towards diversity will be a game-changer.
What is perhaps more telling is how little talk there was among coaches besides Arians about this movement at the league meetings. If it even is to become a movement with any tangible momentum. I asked him if his peers were asking questions or probing for names of other qualified female coaches or asking about his experience integrating them on his staff. Would the NFL coaching ranks truly embrace a strong female representation?
“Well, I think so,” Arians remarked. “Rex (Ryan) did it when he was in Buffalo. It’s finding the right person for your staff. But, honestly, no one has mentioned it. Of the coaches, no one has mentioned it.”
Ryan has been out of coaching since being fired by the Bills late in the 2016 season, and his immediate prospects of getting back in as a head coach seem bleak. And, frankly, it was Arians’ recommendation of Kathryn Smith to Ryan for the quality control/special teams opening he had in the summer of 2016 that helped pave the way for her hiring there. Ryan’s inclusionary ways with the Jets and Bills haven’t exactly created a groundswell, and the reality is that the number of African-American and Hispanic head coaches and general managers has been dwindling in recent years.
When it comes to the highest-ranking football operations executive in all 32 franchises, only one is not a white male (Chris Grier of the Dolphins). Only one African-American head coach was hired in this last cycle despite a quarter of the league changing over – Brian Flores, also of the Dolphins. Flores joins Mike Tomlin and Anthony Lynn to comprise less than 10 percent of the jobs in a league where the players are overwhelmingly not white.
When a reporter mentioned to Arians that he was the only NFL coach with three African-American coordinators, he quickly jumped in and added “and assistant head coach,” a title reserved for Harold Goodwin. Arians also has an African-American defensive coordinator in Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator in Byron Leftwich and special teams coach in Keith Armstrong. He isn’t sitting around counting, but it’s impossible not to take notice when the trends are this obvious.
“It’s not by design,” Arians said of his staff composition, “it’s because they are really qualified guys I have worked with and I know can coach. I think they’re all head-coaching candidates, but it’s not like, ‘Let me go find this guy to fit this role.’ I’ve known these guys, and I’ve worked with them. It was just a natural fit.”
Coaches tend to hire who they know and what they know. More should reach beyond their cocoons and networks and coaching family trees and seek those with perspectives and backgrounds different than their own. But that isn’t how it has worked. The current thrust is to hire almost exclusively quarterback gurus and offensive play-callers as head coaches, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy with so few head coaches and organizations hiring African American quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators who would be positioned to move up the ladder.
“There’s not enough guys in that pool on offense,” Arians said, “and we have to build that. We have to build that African-American offensive coordinator/QB coach that is going to be a head coach. And I think that’s our jobs as head coaches, to find those guys.”
Arians of course, has developed Goodwin and Leftwich during his time in Arizona, and, now, Antwaan Randle El is his latest protege, taking on the former receiver and quarterback as an offensive assistant in Tampa. It’s something that comes natural to him, and he cares deeply about.
“I always look for former player who have a passion … And Antwaan Randle El, I think, is going to get there. That’s why he is on the staff — to help him grow at either of those positions. Everybody has got a different view of it, and how you hire your staff. I just think it’s part of my job.”
Eventually, hopefully, Arians’ way of thinking becomes more of the norm. One-hundred years into the NFL, and somehow his inclusionary actions render him more of an outlier than anything else. It’s beyond time that women are made to feel more welcome within the game. Ten decades is more than long enough.