During the sixth annual NFL Women’s Forum, coaches and general managers from the 32 teams were asked to spend one hour participating. Some stayed several hours longer, with Brian Daboll, recently hired as head coach of the New York Giants, stressing he wanted to learn more about the program.
“This was at the beginning of the free agency period,” said Sam Rapoport, the league’s senior director, diversity, equity and inclusion and the creator of the forum. “That’s the attitude one of our coaches had. He wanted to learn more not only about the participants but about how he can better learn in this space.”
Daboll hardly was alone as 45 young women from colleges on all levels attended the invitational event this week. So did team owners, executives and personnel from the football and business sides of all 32 franchises. There were 73 speakers this year.
“It goes beyond job opportunities,” Rapoport explained, “though that is one of the outcomes we’d look to see. But it’s also about development and education, connecting women with people at all levels. It creates a network, not with women only but with people who believe in this cause and want to see it move forward.”
The movement has gone forward so rapidly that there are now about 150 women working in football operations across the NFL. There certainly are hundreds, possibly thousands more, hoping for such a chance.
Two of this year’s attendees were Camille Wilson, a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central who also is working on a master’s degree at nearby North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Isabel Diaz, a junior at Oklahoma State working as a student assistant for the team’s defense.
Wilson, 25, of Cincinnati, was a Division III tennis player at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, but her passion is football, particularly in player engagement and operations.
“I got to hear from scouts, player personnel, administration,” she said of the two-day forum, “and just being able to see how all these departments work together and how interchangeable they are, there’s so much you can do. That really stood out to me. I definitely fell more in love with player engagement and operations than I was to begin with. I would say I know more overall than what I began with; I knew nothing about player personnel beforehand. Now I know so much more, and it will let me try to reach out and learn more.”
The mini-community that the women formed for a short time this week was just a starting point as they all pursue similar goals.
“I will continue to grow in these relationships and networking, and continue to communicate and lean on the other 44 women who were a part of this. That is my tribe now,” Wilson said.
Diaz, from Lewisville, Texas, began watching football with her grandfather when she was 4 years old, spending Sundays in front of the TV with him — even begging her parents to let her stay up for the prime-time game. By the time she was a wise, old 10, she told her mother she wanted to become a football coach.
While she notes that “all the coaches were amazing to talk to,” Diaz was particularly impressed by Daboll.
“I really enjoyed my time with Coach Daboll,” she said. “He wanted to have informal conversations, didn’t worry about what we were asking.”
“I made this decision I wanted do this and there was no representation of anyone who looked like me,” she added. “To see how much it has grown, just to see the growth, I am in awe and amazed, and super in awe to be a small part of that growth. It’s hard to fit it all together.
“I got advice before from a person who said we all put our pants on the same way, kind of a little silly thing. But every time I’d go into a breakout room or when I would introduce myself, it is still intimidating. But the coaches and owners and general mangers who are participants are all there loving football and they want to see us grow and be successful.”
Success stories are what the forum is all about. When the invitees meet and listen to past Women’s Forum participants Callie Brownson, the Browns’ chief of staff, or 49ers pro personnel analyst Salli Clavelle, they get knowledge and insight, but they also are inspired by where those women have come from and gotten to.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Rapoport said. “For women to understand the landscape of the NFL is changing and that progress is only going to continue, we want them to know they belong and see they belong.”
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