Jennifer King sat in her office prepping for one of the Washington Football Team’s final regular season games when head coach Ron Rivera popped in to pass along some news. King’s promotion from season long intern to full-time assistant running backs coach was official.
King said a quick thanks, then in true coach form went right back to work.
There were no immediate screams of joy or silent celebratory dancing once Rivera left the room. There was no calling everyone she knew to let them she was now the first Black woman to become a full-time coach in the NFL. And a positional coach to boot.
“I was excited and thankful but I never thought about the magnitude of it until things started blowing up,” King says.
Once her promotion became public the elation and outpouring of support was omnipresent. Heavy hitters in NFL circles and beyond, including fellow trailblazer Billie Jean King, sent congratulatory messages. More importantly, so did a plethora of Black girls who now can see themselves as a future NFL coach.
King’s journey to the NFL began when she played women’s professional football from 2006-2017. She also coached college basketball: from 2016 to 2018 she was the head coach for the Johnson & Wales women’s team, who she led to the USCAA Division II National Championship in 2018.
In a stroke of serendipity, Johnson & Wales is adjacent to the Carolina Panthers’ practice facility and stadium in Charlotte. King could hear the sounds of football from her office, sounds that were orchestrated by the then maestro of the Carolina Panthers, Ron Rivera.
King would observe Panthers practice from her side of the fence whenever she could. Her NFL coaching dreams were only solidified by what she saw.
Then happenstance coincided with intentionality.
Around 2015 Sam Rapoport, a former quarterback turned NFL senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion pitched an entirely new initiative to normalize football by creating a pipeline for women to hold NFL careers in coaching, scouting, analytics, football administration and a bevy of other x’s and o’s jobs that had long been reserved for men only. Commissioner Roger Goodell, a “girl dad,” as King likes to point out, was all in.
The NFL held its first Women’s Careers in Football Forum in 2017, joining together qualified women with head coaches and executives. These aspiring women not only got inside access to some of the best NFL minds, but also got to make real connections. Prior to the forum’s existence these women were shut out of NFL inner circles because they didn’t play for a certain coach (even though so many played and coaches in women’s leagues) or have a certain dad. And, yes, because of deep-seeded stereotypes. Luckily for the game, times are changing.
Despite working a stone’s throw from the Panthers facility, King only met Rivera in the second year of the forum. She was placed in his breakout room and seized the opportunity. She peppered Rivera with questions about coaching strategy and sold the skills she had learned at Johnson & Wales. After they got back to Charlotte, Rivera invited her to rookie minicamp for two days.
“He kept inviting me back for two days at a time and suddenly two days turned into 40 days,” King says with a chuckle.
After her coaching internship with the Panthers, King bolstered her coaching resume with a role at Dartmouth and a stint with the short-lived AAF. When Rivera was hired by the Washington Football Team last year, he brought on King.
King’s rapid rise is just one example of the shifting landscape in the NFL. While even Goodell has acknowledged the disturbing lack of diversity among head coaches, the rapid growth of the pool of women on NFL club payrolls is a testament to the forum’s promotion of diversity in the coaching and scouting ranks.
“The interactions themselves have helped change people’s minds. That’s a huge step up from where the forum started and just participating in the diversity program because it looks nice,” says NFL senior manager of football development Venessa Hutchinson who works in concert with Rapoport to manage the forum and identify qualified participants.
Since the forum’s inception in 2017, 118 opportunities have emerged for women in both the NFL and collegiate ranks. Eight women now work as NFL coaches and 12 as scouts. Many are alumni of the forum but some are not, a signal that the league’s mindset is changing.
For those on the fence, the success of the current crop of female coaches is undeniable. Six of the eight coaches reached the most recent playoffs – King, Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson, Rams strength coach Chelsea Romero, Titans strength coach Kristi Bartlett, and, from the Bucs, assistant defensive line coach Lo Locust and strength coach Maral Javadifar. Locust and Javadifar are now Super Bowl champions.
“It shows diversity wins. A lot of people are curious about the idea of diversifying their staff, you bring new eyes and new ideas to their staff. It’s really cool,” King says.
One of the head coaches new to this year’s forum, which took place last week virtually, was six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick, a major coup for Hutchinson and Rapoport.
“He was extremely interested,” Hutchinson says. “Honestly, based on the interaction if we had asked him sooner, he probably would have participated sooner. He respects coaching. He respects developing coaches.”
Belichick, whose daughter is the head lacrosse coach at Holy Cross University, joined Titans head coach Mike Vrabel in a breakout room with 11 women interested in coaching. The two could have put in their time and bid adieu but instead gave out their email addresses and encouraged the coaching hopefuls to keep in touch.
They follow in the footsteps of Bucs head coach Bruce Arians who two years ago strongly encouraged forum participants to email him. In true Arians form it was more like, Why the hell have none of you emailed me yet? You can’t get ahead if you don’t stick your neck out! (A directive he repeated last week.)
Arians also vowed to hire a full-time female coach at that forum. A few weeks and a heavily clogged inbox later, he hired two. It seems to have worked out for them all.
While Year 1 of the forum may have been rooted in altruism, Year 5 has a growing number of coaches and front offices who consider it a legitimate outlet towards building an inclusive staff and culture, something they genuinely value. And given the success the current crop has seen, coaches like Belichick and others have to view it as a pathway to competitive advantage. After all, the NFL is the ultimate copycat league.
Hutchinson acknowledges that even today a few clubs still check the box when it comes to diversity and eight women out of approximately 500 NFL coaches does not equate to normalization. But she can see the pipeline strengthening.
“We at least feel like minds are being changed. We don’t expect anything to be overnight, but here’s the thing, we have head coaches and general managers coming into place and diversity, equity and inclusion is in the front of their minds. Less of hopping on the bandwagon, organizations that just value a structure of diversity from the get go. It’s going to make the most difference when you look back in five years.”
And in five years King hopes that we will be so much closer to normal, that when a female coach is hired the reaction will be, “Oh they hired a woman. Water’s wet. Let’s move on.”