As one of only seven coaching interns working for the Arizona Cardinals this summer, Jen Welter is believed to be the first female to hold a coaching position of any kind in the NFL. Her job will be working with the team's inside linebackers, which some would consider a job similar to working with the lions at the circus. Welter's experience proves she's up to the task.
Last year, in response to the NFL hiring a female referee, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said a woman could also coach in the league. So Chris Williams, then coach of the Indoor Football League's Texas Revolution recommended Welter, who once played running back and special teams for the semi-pro squad (the first woman in professional non-kicking role) and was serving as a linebackers coach at the time. Arians, an NFL veteran well-known for seeing talent before anyone else, took him up on it.
"The minute they can prove they can make a player better, they'll be hired," Arians said. "Coaching is nothing more than teaching."
Despite a Gallup poll from October that suggests roughly a third of American employees prefer to work for a man, compared to 23 percent who said they'd rather work for a woman (46 percent said it didn't make a difference), the tide is shifting in men's professional sports. Teams are finally more comfortable hiring women to accomplish everything men have traditionally done, including the likes of Jeanie Buss, who took the position of president and part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers after her father, Jerry, passed in 2013.
Whether or not hiring women eventually impacts wins and losses is a moot point since the opportunities have been limited, and simple statistics suggest men have lost exactly as many games as they've won while trolling the NFL sidelines. But the continuing removal of gender barriers in American sports is an important step, even if it comes with little surprise.
Women have actually been an integral part of many NFL franchises in recent decades, and nearly a quarter of the league has women listed as part or whole owners of a team. A few have hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy. Dawn Aponte serves as executive VP of football administration for the Miami Dolphins, and the Buffalo Bills are counted among the league leaders with more women in high-level posts than any other team. Society has matured, and savvy sports owners are banking on their athletes maturing, too.
While Welter prepares for her first training camp with the Cardinals under Arians, Becky Hammon just wrapped up a successful stint coaching the San Antonio Spurs rookies and hopefuls to a Summer League championship in Las Vegas. The former WNBA star was hired as the first female assistant coach in NBA history last summer.
"She was in my coaches' meetings for a whole year because she was injured, and she's got opinions and solid notions about basketball," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich explained recently. "Obviously, she was a great player, and as a point guard, she's a leader, she's fiery, she's got high intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her. She's out on the court, she's coaching with us, she's running drills. And so that's why we made her a full-time person, and that's why I gave her the opportunity to coach in Summer League."
Hammon's name has already been floated in conversations among a shortlist of talented coaches who will replace those inevitably fired in the middle of the next NBA season.
"I think some people thought, 'Well, this is some sort of a gimmick, they're just trying to be cool,' or whatever," Popovich said. "And when she went to the Summer League, that's about development — it gives coaches a chance to coach — but the real reason you're there is to watch your new draft pick or a free agent that you might like to develop and hopefully make your team. That was her purpose. She did a great job of just concentrating on trying to make guys play the way we want to play and develop as individuals."
History shows that it doesn't necessarily matter if athletes like a particular coach. It doesn't matter what their gender is, man or woman. Sports is the great equalizer. Chris Rock once explained, referring to racism, that the reason he loved sports is because "success is not a matter of opinion." Winners win, losers lose, and no matter who you are, if you know how to coach, there's usually a job waiting for you.