Back in 2017, Sam Rapoport, the Senior Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the NFL, and the NFL created the Women's Careers in Football Forum, a multi-day program giving qualified women access to NFL front office members, coaches, and executives in hopes of cultivating connections and transforming those networking opportunities into jobs.
Fast forward to 2021, and the league wrapped its fifth-annual forum at the end of February. Coming off a season that saw two female coaches win a Super Bowl and a woman, Sarah Thomas, officiate the game for the first time in NFL history, it's no surprise that in this short time, progress is being made.
118 women have been hired in a multitude of roles in the game of football since the forum's inception.
This year, the NFL shifted to a virtual format and invited 40 women to attend the two-day forum which featured panels with team owners, general managers, and head coaches, and smaller breakout sessions. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his wife, Jane Skinner Goodell, joined as well.
"It's a way for us to get rid of the excuse for clubs that they cannot find qualified women," said Venessa Hutchinson, Senior Manager of Football Development at the NFL, who works on the forum with Rapoport. "The biggest-known factor around the league is that men have these inner circles that they run in and that's how people get jobs and women are not a part of that. So the forum is an attempt to add those women into the circles so they can end up on the short lists for jobs just like men."
One of the attendees was local to Los Angeles. Monique Boone currently is in her first season serving as Hawthorne High School's varsity defensive line coach and varsity assistant offensive line coach.
As someone who grew up loving football and playing the game, the transition to coaching was a natural fit for Boone, but she appreciated how the forum showed her and all the participants that so many roles are available for them at high levels.
"I saw at it as a networking football bootcamp," Boone said. "You're meeting so many people that you're taking so many notes – I literally have like 20 pages of notes! It was an experience that I can't really describe in words because it's put me in a place where (I think) it's so much bigger. I coach at Hawthorne, but it's so much bigger and I want to be a part of that.
"It's connecting with so many people that say my love is coaching, but I learned so much more about football operations, as well. I don't think I would have had that opportunity if it wasn't for the forum."
While progress with women is actively being made, men still hold a majority of top positions, and it still takes men to advocate and be allies for women. As an example, Boone got her coaching job at Hawthorne based on a recommendation from her former coach who is now coaching at the high school as well. Hawthorne's head coach, Corey Thedford, said hiring Monique was "one of the easiest decisions I've ever made."
Seven head coaches and six general managers were part of the forum in 2021. But the forum showed how these men are and can continue to be active champions for the growth of women working in football.
"It means the world and that's where the support has to come from, it has to come from those making the decisions," Hutchinson said. "You look at who came to the forum this year, we have a younger generation of coaches and GMs who are starting their regimes. At some point or another, a lot of those guys have worked with women in their front office whether it be at the college level or the professional level … It's just normal to them and they see women as belonging.
"It's less of trying to get a club to embrace it and incorporate it, but they're starting from the beginning. I think as more of those new regimes get up and running, you're going to see more progress, they're more sincere in what they're doing. They're not checking a box, they want this to be part of the legacy they built."
If women are interested in attending next year's forum, Hutchinson advises future participants to send her a note on Twitter or LinkedIn. And if you need a recommendation on why you should participate, I'll let Boone take it from here.
"The way the it's run, Sam, and Venessa and Andi (Djamal, Global Events Coordinator, Verizon Media) and everyone else connected to it, it's just like a well-operated machine," she mentioned. "They have found the right code to say, how do we put women in the best situation to succeed? The women who have attended, they are thriving … There's so much movement out of that forum, you can't help but be excited."
Both Hutchinson and Boone were guests on a special 2021 Women's History Month edition of Playmakers. Stay tuned for the final episode of the month, dropping March 29, featuring Amy Staley.