The NFL Will Hire a Female Head Coach Sooner Than You Think

When I first read the news that Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was asked to interview for the Milwaukee Bucks head coaching vacancy, my eyes welled up.  There are few things more powerful in this era typically steeped in inequality than the sweet smell of authentic, best person for the job, progress.

The Bucks hired Mike Budenholzer this week, not Hammon, but she’ll get more interviews. She’ll likely get a head coaching gig soon enough. If not Hammon someone will if Adam Silver has any say.

When it comes to matters of societal progress it’s impossible not to compare the steep disparity between the NFL and NBA. The NBA’s megastars and coaches are given an easel with which to comfortably share impassioned opinions on politics and criminal justice, while the NFL banished one of the most noted philanthropists in sports for quietly expressing his first amendment rights. This dichotomy is just one of myriad reasons the NBA is on the rise, while the NFL has likely peaked in terms of popularity.

As the NFL chases the $25 billion revenue mark so much of its future is bleak…largely because the league has long been too focused on chasing $25 billion in revenue.

Meanwhile, the truth about the dangers of football has become startlingly evident to the public in recent years. There is no helmet that prevents concussions and intricate details about the ramifications of concussive hits are scaring the bejeezus out of prospective football parents everywhere – just wait until it’s possible to test CTE in the living. Not surprisingly, youth participations rates are way down.

The NFL is also behind on virtually every social issue, constantly in reactive mode as it pivots from crisis to crisis. Its track record for properly and immediately dealing with issues important to female fans falls somewhere between atrocious and horrifying.  Thus the NFL organically producing the next Becky Hammon any time soon seems rather unlikely on the surface.

Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman posited this very question this week – When will the NFL have its own Becky Hammon?. He included the thoughts of former Raiders CEO Amy Trask, who is of the mindset that we won’t see a female NFL head coach any time soon mostly due to a lack of pipeline. “At the present time, there is (at least in my view) no woman who is qualified to be an NFL head coach,” Trask told Freeman. (Though she did concede that anything is possible given her groundbreaking 30-year career in the NFL.)

Freeman was also skeptical, mainly because of the NFL’s not so stellar treatment of women, though he did consider which teams could take a shot if the right candidate existed. (Spoiler: Bill Belichick, when he relinquishes head coach duties and solely becomes a GM, would hire a 95-year-old blind grandma if he thought it would equate to victories.)

As much as I respect both Trask and Freeman, I’m not as skeptical. In fact, I believe we will see a female head coach in the next 15 years, and the reason is rather simple. Unlike every other “cause” or “new policy” that has been a knee jerk reaction to some disaster, the NFL is showing an authentic, proactive commitment to creating a pipeline for female coaches and general managers.

When the NFL hired Samantha Rapoport in the fall of 2016 as director of football operations with a focus on diversity and inclusion, it wasn’t because the pressure had mounted. Sure, the NFL had botched the Ray Rice issue two years prior and subsequently stumbled in enforcing a tough and fair domestic violence policy. Female fans felt disheartened. But no one was protesting outside 345 Park Avenue about the lack of female coaches.

While “diverse” is hardly the first word to pop up when describing the modern day NFL, in reality, approximately 33% of front office jobs are held by women. These jobs are largely rooted in marketing and administration, but the NFL could still stand pat and tout its inclusion, especially when compared to other industries (ahem, sports media).  It’s been less than two years into Rapoport’s tenure, but she and the league are convincingly committed to bolstering the far more desolate numbers on the x’s and o’s side of football.

Rapoport, a former QB for the Women Football Alliance’s Montreal Blitz who interned for the NFL before creating a flag football program for girls at USA Football, was already richly connected to a world of potentially qualified women before she started her strategic position at the NFL. Most play professional football, largely for free, because of deep love and knowledge of the sport. They are keenly interested in scouting, training, front office management and yes, coaching, but until now never had a bridge to connect them to decision makers who could shepherd them through the NFL’s traditional maze of nepotism and maleness. They know x’s and o’s but never had training at the league level as to how to convey this knowledge.

Rapoport and the growing number of decision makers who believe in a diversified NFL have already created the pathway. In January the league hosted its second Women’s Careers in Football Forum in which select qualified women received advice from and exposure to an array of heavy hitters from the head of NFL security to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera to Bills co-owner Kim Pegula.

The Bills have been at the forefront of creating opportunities for women, most famously naming Kathryn Smith the first full-time female coach under Rex Ryan in 2016. (Jen Welter was the first overall female coach after a 2015 training camp internship in Arizona.) Phoebe Schecter, a football player and coach in England, landed a training camp internship with the Bills in 2017 after attending the forum. But to normalize women in football and create a realistic path for a sea of female coaches, it truly takes a village of progressive decision makers committed to developing new talent, not just one owner or one coach.

Kathleen Wood, a graduate of The Scouting Academy spent time in the Bills scouting department before interning with the Philadelphia Eagles. Collette Smith, who played three years for the Independent Women’s Football League, landed a coaching internship with the Jets in 2017. Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, a major champion of diversity in the x’s and o’s ranks, later gave his daughter’s fifth grade basketball coach in Kansas City an opportunity with the Falcons after learning that she had played eight successful years in the Women’s Football Alliance and was also the general manager of its top tackle team. Katie Sowers impressed then offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the point that he added her to his coaching staff when he became the 49ers head coach. Sowers will coach her second season with the 49ers this year.  These are just a few examples of the women being added to the pipeline.

Sowers is not Hammon in that she doesn’t yet have the experience or cache to realistically land a head coaching interview this year or next or probably for a few years. But perhaps that changes in 5-7 years, especially if she rises in an organization already well positioned for success. New Bears head coach Matt Nagy has only held actual NFL coaching titles since 2011. Jason Garrett was an NFL assistant coach for just five years before landing the Cowboys job. Mike Vrabel went from Texans linebackers coach in Titans head coach in four years. Yes, they played football. So did Sowers and almost all of the women trying to advance in the NFL.

If the league continues on its current proactive path and continues to employ Rapoport, a female head coach in the not too distant future is realistic.  Especially as the old guard is supplanted with younger forward-thinkers like Shanahan but also because there’s so many openings on a yearly basis.

With the exception of revenue generation, the NFL is behind the NBA in almost every respect. But the fact that it’s possibly not that far behind when it comes to the first female head coach is, to me, the most invigorating aspect of the future of the NFL.