By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Did you notice anything different about the Super Bowl this year?
Not Tom Brady winning – that is nothing new – but the record number of women involved in the big game, from coaches to trainers to officials to operations staff.
Turns out there is a quarterback behind that drive: Sam Rapoport.
As the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Rapoport – herself a former QB, who played for Canada’s first female tackle football squad – has been busy developing and placing female talent across the college and professional ranks.
Key to that initiative: Her annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum, the latest edition of which kicks off, virtually, on Wednesday.
Rapoport sat down with Reuters to talk about introducing more gender diversity into one of the most male-dominated fields on the planet.
Q: How did gender diversity efforts play out at this year's Super Bowl?
A: This Super Bowl had two full-time female coaches, a female scout and scouting assistant, and the most senior Black female in an operations role, all with the (Tampa Bay) Buccaneers; two female full-time trainers, with the (Kansas City) Chiefs; and a female official, Sarah Thomas. We’re excited about all these firsts.
Q: You are basically a one-stop jobs resource for women in this field?
A: We serve as a hub for incredibly talented females who want to break into the NFL. What we hear from coaches and general managers is that they would love to have a more balanced staff, but they don’t meet any candidates in their circles.
We find candidates, we vet them, and we connect them with the people who can hire them.
Q: Tell me about this Women’s Careers in Football Forum.
A: It’s our fifth year, and it’s a two-day program, taking place virtually this year. There are a number of panels, with executives and coaches and GMs all giving advice and sharing experiences and inspiring women to apply. It’s a chance to learn, interact with them, and develop those relationships.
Before the program even starts, we prepare our candidates: How to prep their elevator pitch, how to discuss what they have done, advice on who to contact and at what time of year. Our goal is to get them into the interview room, and once they do, they will be able to shine.
Q: There is a recent book by two female journalists, “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back” – as a woman in football, have you ever felt like that?
A: Not to say there aren’t challenges of working in this sport, but I think of how much football has loved me. I grew up playing, it’s part of my identity, it’s how I got my job, it’s how I met my wife. It has taken over my life. I can’t give back enough to it, and that’s why I’m so passionate about this.
Q: Have you gotten any pushback from football's old guard?
A: We haven’t really included the old guard. We have included younger progressive thinkers and newer coaches, who don’t need any convincing. They know that in order to be the best, you have to recruit the best, and to do that you need to include everybody.
Q: Which team gets the trophy, for being the best advocates for women in football?
A: The teams who are succeeding most in the league right now – those who got into the playoffs, and those who made the Super Bowl – seem to be the teams with the most diverse staffs.
Look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Coach Bruce Arians, who set the standard from the start. They didn’t just hire one female coach, they hired two. It’s about the team reflecting their fan base and their country. Other teams doing this at a very high level include the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Football Team, the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns.
Q: Are you looking forward to the day when we won’t be talking about "firsts" anymore?
A: It’s really difficult to be the first at something, with so much pressure to succeed. It feels like you have a lot of rocks in your backpack. But now we have had two back-to-back Super Bowls with female coaches. Firsts are important, but the most progress will be when the interest eventually dies down, and this just becomes totally normal.
(Reporting by Chris Taylor; Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis)