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The NFL made history last month — three women were on the field during a game. But reflecting on that big day, that shouldn’t be enough.
On the Sept. 27 game between the Cleveland Browns and the Washington Football Team, three women employed by the NFL were all on the field during competition. One was NFL official Sarah Thomas, who has been an established referee since 2015 and has called several games, including a playoff game, as a line judge. The other two were coaches: Jennifer King who is a full-year coaching intern for Washington, and Callie Brownson who is the chief of staff for Cleveland.
This was the first time the league had witnessed a total of three women on the field for a contest in their 100-year history. All parties involved were proud of the accomplishment, with both Washington and the Browns tweeting in solidarity about the topic.
However, reflecting on that big day got me thinking. Should we be satisfied with that one moment? I think not.
Despite a reputation of prejudice, the NFL has committed to efforts of making their league more diverse. At least, that is what they want you to think.
It is no surprise that the league held this flawed stature for decades. Public relation fiascos relating to the treatment of women staff, coming from not only players but also personnel among several teams, was commonplace in business operations. The league eventually decided to tackle these issues and attempted to shift the narrative.
Established in 2003, the NFL introduced the “Rooney Rule.” Released after the sudden firings of head coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, the policy intended to allow minority coaches the opportunity to be recognized further for high profile head coaching positions in the league. Yet, the real intention could be placed under the human resources category, wanting to proclaim the idea that the league is using affirmative action to note “we want to be more diverse.”
In February of 2016, the NFL used the policy and incorporated it with hiring women. What this means is teams must interview both one minority and one woman for open positions. Along with this, the league also hosted an event recognized as the “Women’s Careers in Football Forum.” And when looking at hiring statistics from a distance, it seems these efforts have helped heal the mends.
For example, when you hear the percentage of women employers that are hired by the NFL you might be surprised; in 2019 36.8% of league employees were women. And three years after the Rule was introduced in 2003, the percentage of African-American coaches went from six percent to 22%.
When looking a little deeper, however, we might see a different story. Yes, women are employed by the NFL, but they mainly hold positions in legal counseling, medical advising and so on. Meaning, there aren’t many women who hold on-field positions.
In terms of Black head coaches, there are currently three in the NFL. How many were there when the Rooney Rule was created? Three — 17 years later the number has remained the same.
With all of this said, the league that has embodied American sports culture the most for almost an entire century may not be as diverse as we want it to be. Nevertheless, this cannot lead to an ignorance towards the progress the NFL has made. Nothing may showcase that progress more than what occurred during the Cleveland and Washington contest.
It was undoubtedly a step towards the right direction, but the mere fact that it took so long for such a feat to occur remains disheartening and likely leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who are seeking female inclusion in the sport.
Some may argue that women are not normally associated with the sport because there lies a general lack of interest from the demographic. But, yet again, statistics will prove this point wrong, particularly in 2016 when this inclusion summit was first made prevalent. Super Bowl 50 played between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers showed that out of the 111.9 million television viewers, 52 million were declared females. As David Schawb noted, this compares to the 34 million people total who watched the Oscars that same year. These sort of numbers have stayed consistent. There remains an interest in football from the female demographic.
And yet here we stand. By 2018, 17 women coaches were hired by NFL squads, with 12 of them playing the role of intern. And let us keep in mind, NFL coaching staffs do not have restrictions on how many people can be hired. Since 2018 there are a total of close to 750 hired coaches in the league without counting interns. Meaning, 0.23 percent of coaches in the NFL are female.
You can argue about the competitiveness of the field. You can argue that the atmosphere is simply not suited for the opposing gender. You can argue about the dangers that may ensue just from being on the sidelines. The simple truth still remains – coaching in not only the NFL, but in every professional sporting league, is one of the most segregated professions in America. And truly, there is no reason why.
The interest is there. There are women doing it, and doing a great job at it. The need for it is apparent. Teams and their executives must stop ignoring the potential that females bring to their locker rooms. There is so much more opportunity to present that reputation. The future — an immediate future — must be the catalyst for this transition.