Super Bowl LI in Houston, TX was the most historical in several aspects. It was the largest come from behind win in Super Bowl, the first Super Bowl overtime, the most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback (5 by Tom Brady), and the most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback and head coach combination. Now let’s talk about a statistic that many sports journalists aren’t talking about. Nearly half of Super Bowl 51 viewers (45%) were women.
Last year during Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, CA. the NFL Women’s Summit highlighted its initiative to prioritize the focus on Women in the NFL. Since 2016 the NFL has made some tremendous strides on and off the field. As I covered in the March 2016 story for Champagne and Beyond, Kathryn Smith was hired by the Buffalo Bills as the first full-time assistant coach. The momentum has continued and this year the NFL held several events focusing on youth and women.
The NFL’s Chief Marketing Officer Dawn Hudson remembered last year’s NFL Women’s Summit when a young girl in the audience asked Serena Williams where she got her confidence. Williams, not only one of the greatest tennis player, but often debated as one of the greatest athletes in history answered by saying “she had always been confident,” and that stuck with Hudson, acknowledging that girl’s confidence is a very delicate topic.
Hudson stated “If we want to have an impact on teen girls maybe we need to let them be in a safe space where they can ask questions and get some people to talk to them and inspire them.”
This year’s summit was a smaller event that primarily highlighted about 250 girls from Houston’s schools and program, much different from last year’s when Williams and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke in San Francisco. In Houston, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman posed with fans after her panel. Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s Chief Security Officer, told her own story about becoming Chief of the DC police department at age 39 after a very tough childhood. Alexis Jones, founder of I Am That Girl, inspired Alexandra Childs, a 14-year-old from Young Women’s College Prep Academy. Childs said, “I like what she told us, that we are who we are, and we’re not perfect.”
There were great discussions at this year’s summit, but there was also an elephant in the room when it comes to the NFL and women. Earlier that week, an NFL cheerleader filled what could become a class -action suit against the league for colluding to keep their wages low.
Player conduct and the NFL’s baseline six game suspension for domestic violence has been a hot topic over the three years since it was issued.
Commissioner Roger Goodell briefly appeared to offer inspiration and announce an NFL “externship” program for kids to get a sense of what the NFL offers. “I hope today you take this as a learning opportunity,” Goodell said. “This is all about the opportunity to listen to people who represent something different than what you expected. Some people who have no experience with whatsoever, some people who are real celebs. This is an opportunity to ask questions and to make sure you move down the path that you want to move down.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell
During the NFL All-Star game in Orlando the Pro Bowl also focused on a different perspective of women in the NFL. McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s Chief Information Officer instituted a new communications system leaguewide this season that made sure that both teams communications system during NFL games were equal and consistent. Mc Kenna-Doyle and other high-ranking front-office women took part in a discussion on how they have some of the best jobs in professional sports.
The audience was a group of more than 200 women’s tackle football players from around the world who know and have played the game and who with the right training, could become candidates for officiating, scouting and coaching jobs. The two-day forum is the brain child of the NFL’s new director of football development, Sam Rapoport. Her job has been to strive to get more women hired in the NFL, so that women with a natural affinity for the game will learn what kind of training and preparation could make them good candidates.
Rapoport, who was hired by the NFL last year, come from the world of women’s football, having played quarterback at the top levels and flag football for the Canadian national team. With her background, she knows many talented women who play the game but aren’t connected to the NFL pipeline or don’t know how to get the right training jobs.
The attendees played football between the panel discussions, giving themselves full days of physical and mental challenges. Speakers included Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera; his wife and former WNBA head coach Stephanie Rivera and their daughter Courtney who has done scouting for the Panthers.
Courtney, Ron and Stephanie Rivera
Former Miami Dolphins Executive Dawn Aponte, who now works for Stephen Ross, a sports and entertainment investment firm, discussed how she broke into football by parlaying an accountant internship with the NY Jets into becoming a salary-cap expert.
“The objective here is something that we haven’t had.” Said Aponte, who earned her law degree at night while working for the NY Jets so she could advance in the organization. “It’s to create an awareness of the pathways for women to pursue careers in football. This group of women, they’re a unique group, because they have personal knowledge and have played the game.”
What better way to end this great women’s football symposium than with a tackle football game amongst the summit participants before the final Pro Bowl practice. The women played on the same field as the NFL Pro Bowlers played on Sundays “game. Don’t get too excited yet!
The women played for the “Love of the Game,” the NFL Pro Bowl participants winners each received $35K and the losers each received $15K. Even though women are making strides in the NFL I guess that they still have some yardage to make up before we get on an equal playing field!