The NFL is making it a priority to get more women employed in football, and a Canadian woman is leading its efforts.
When Samantha Rapoport first applied for an internship with the NFL in 2003, the McGill University student had no connections in the sport outside of the women with whom she played tackle football.
So the student of kinesiology and business management put her heart and soul into her application, and then packaged it along with a football and a message: "What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?"
Rapoport got her foot in the door at the NFL's New York headquarters some 15 years ago, and today she is directing the league's initiatives to identify qualified female candidates and open more pathways for them to work in the sport. She's partnering with leaders throughout football, including the CFL.
The NFL has long had many women working on the business side – women hold 33 per cent of all front-office positions across the NFL, including 14 who are either principal owners or own a stake in one of its franchises. But there are still very few working in areas such as coaching, scouting, officiating and team operations.
"What we're trying to accomplish is to flood the football-operations pipeline with qualified women in all levels of football," said Rapoport, who is now the NFL's director of development.
Toward that goal, Rapoport is fresh off organizing the second NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum, held in Orlando during Pro Bowl weekend. From a pool of 400 female applicants, 50 women representing five countries were selected for the event, including four Canadians with experience in tackle football. It was an intensive weekend of learning and networking with employers from the NFL, CFL, college and high-school football programs.
"In order to find the best candidates, you have to consider 100 per cent of the candidate pool, and we weren't doing that in the NFL," Rapoport said. "Our clubs said, 'We'd love to hire females, but where do we find them? All of the résumés coming across our desks are from men.'
"So we saw that as an opportunity to provide a service to our NFL clubs, to provide them qualified female candidates for their consideration. Once we did that, the clubs were strongly supportive of the idea."
Twenty-two of the women who participated in the inaugural forum last year secured jobs in pro, college or high-school football, including nine who landed internships in the NFL, most in coaching or scouting.
Rapoport enlisted a large group of men and women working for the league or its teams to speak and teach at the forum, such as Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and NFL chief football administration officer Dawn Aponte, the highest-ranking woman in football operations in the league.
She also invited speakers from college football and the CFL, including CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, Toronto Argonauts general manager Jim Popp and the Argos' newly hired director of football administration, Catherine Raîche, who was part of a large CFL contingent.
"Every woman at that event has a chance to get a job in football at some level – there was a lot of talent there, women with tremendous backgrounds," said Popp, who led a breakout session on player evaluation and scouting, and took candidates through film. "I don't get many résumés from female candidates. Why is that? My message is don't be shy. I would love to see events like this in the CFL to encourage the hiring of more women to our teams."
Popp has three women working in football operations for the Argos – Raîche, Chantal Covington, executive assistant to the GM and player personnel, and Temeko Richardson, a scout.
The CFL says half of its league-office employees are women, but it hasn't kept a tally on how many its teams employ. There are women working on the business side, but to glance at staff lists for the nine CFL clubs, one finds very few women in coaching, football operations, training and front-office positions.
The CFL's vice-president of marketing, Christina Litz, attended the forum for a second successive year and has been sharing ideas with Rapoport, eagerly working to encourage the hiring of more women in the CFL. She said she could see the CFL holding a similar women's event, and also hopes to make women a bigger part of the league's outreach strategies in grassroots football.
"It was exciting to see the people who are in a position to do the hiring and create change giving their time to be there," Litz said. "A common theme was that once you get up the elevator, you need to send it back down to help the next person, and it really felt like that was happening for women over the weekend in Orlando."
Rapoport and Litz will continue to collaborate on this.
"There is such an opportunity to build a pipeline of candidates between the CFL and NFL," said Rapoport by phone from New York. "Maybe college football will have opportunities for a Canadian woman, or maybe the CFL has a job for an American woman. There are lots of girls playing youth football across Canada, and they're passionate about the sport, and they are the kind of women we will want in the pipeline."
Rapoport began playing touch football at age 12 while growing up in Ottawa. By 18, while at university, she was the quarterback and captain of a women's tackle football team called the Montreal Blitz.
After graduating, she began as a marketing intern at the NFL, and climbed the ladder. After eight years, she left to work at USA Football, which governs the country's youth and high-school football. There, she created the women's world football games, and had participants from 21 countries coming to compete in an event at the Pro Bowl each year. It gave her valuable insights when she returned to the NFL in 2016.
"I realized we have these women who play the game, love it as much as anyone, and are very knowledgeable and qualified for entry-level positions, the same as any former male players would be after college," Rapoport said. "So many high-school coaches are connected to college or NFL coaches and those natural connections lead to opportunities for their male players. So we want to give women that same opportunity during Pro Bowl week. We had NFL teams telling us they had no idea there were this many women who speak the language of football until they met some of these candidates."
Women are making inroads in the league. In 2015, the NFL hired its first official – Sarah Thomas – and Jen Welter became the first woman to join an NFL coaching staff when she was an assistant in Arizona Cardinals training camp. In 2016, the Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith as quality-control coach for special teams, becoming the NFL's first female full-time coach. In 2017, the 49ers hired Katie Sowers as an assistant wide-receivers coach.
The NFL says more than 86 million women watched some of last year's NFL season, while an average of 51.8 million women tuned in during the Super Bowl. The league says women make up 46 per cent of its fan base.
For a league that has been challenged by issues of players' health and safety, high-profile news stories about some players' behaviour toward women, and the backlash over those kneeling during the U.S. national anthem, promoting the advancement of women in the sport strikes a positive note.
This isn't the only high-profile NFL initiative aimed at inclusivity for women.
This week in Minneapolis, in the lead-up to Sunday's Super Bowl, the NFL will hold its third women's summit, where some 300 local female college and graduate students will hear from numerous league panelists such as commissioner Roger Goodell, NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya and Los Angeles Chargers chief operating officer Jeanne Bonk. The event, which promises some 200 members of the NFL family, aims to 'discuss how football and the broader sports world can continue to support the advancement of women on and off the field.'
"People often assume there's lots of chauvinism in the NFL," Rapoport said. "Well over the summer, I visited lots of teams' training camps, and their enthusiasm and support for this initiative really energized us to keep going. I speak about how we can help them to hire more women and people of colour. It was refreshing to hear so many teams say, 'We can get better in this area, and here are the ways you can help us'."