Tracking NFL opportunities for women

AP Photo/Al Behrman

"The number of opportunities for women to be involved in football has grown," says Katie Blackburn, executive vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals. "Slowly, admittedly, but surely."

For a while now, we have been asking where the minorities are in sports' front offices. Only recently has that question been refined to include women.

While more women have become player agents, and those numbers have grown within the NFL, perhaps the most gender-defined of sports, we continue to wonder about the proverbial glass ceiling. When, for example, is there going to be the first female general manager? Will there ever be one?

Even the suggestion that a woman might be in line to be a GM, as was the case last month with Miami Dolphins vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte (before the hiring of Dennis Hickey), spurred anonymous quotes and panicked speculation well beyond South Florida. The so-called power structure of the organization was dissected and a storyline began to develop among fans and commenters that Aponte must have been behind the firing of former GM Jeff Ireland and was little more than a spy for coach Joe Philbin.

I never considered myself a businessperson who happened to be working for a football team, I considered myself a football person who contributed to the business operations because I wasn't going to contribute on the field.
Amy Trask, former Raiders CEO

One football executive anonymously quoted in the Sun Sentinel newspaper asked, "Is a woman really running the show down there?"

Gender inequity exists. But there is some evidence that we may be missing the big picture here.

Beyond the supposition that the job of GM is perhaps the most stressful, unstable and miserable in sports -- a belief quite possibly shared by Aponte herself, who reportedly has no interest in the position -- is this novel idea:

There are women in football. Doing important things and wielding organizational power. According to the NFL's latest statistics, 71 women occupy positions with teams or the league office at the vice president level or above. And while only a handful of those women are strictly on the so-called football side, that may be where we need to redefine our expectations.

"I never considered myself a businessperson who happened to be working for a football team, I considered myself a football person who contributed to the business operations because I wasn't going to contribute on the field," said Amy Trask, who left the Raiders last May after 27 years as a trusted adviser and eventually CEO for Al Davis in Los Angeles and Oakland.

Trask, who is now an NFL analyst for the CBS Sports Network, also said the assumption that only GMs with strictly football backgrounds are running NFL teams is outdated.

"There are only 32 GMs, and each team defines the role of GM differently," Trask said. "Every single one has different skills and talents, some with football and scouting backgrounds, some with stronger business backgrounds."

GMs no longer automatically hold the top power positions on their teams and do not always report directly to the owner. Other executives, like Chargers CFO Jeanne Bonk, and Hannah Gordon, director of legal affairs for the 49ers, are every bit as influential.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Dolphins vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte is reportedly not interested in a GM position, but that didn't stop the spread of panicked speculation when the job was open in Miami.

"The roles are evolving and have been with the growth of the business, the complexity of the salary cap and the increasing comprehensiveness of the collective bargaining agreement," Trask said. "During the time I spent in the league, this business has grown exponentially and the roles have to evolve to reflect that growth."

As young women interested in football try to decide on the best route to the top jobs in the league, Katie Blackburn, executive vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals, said she can't give them "a magical answer."

"The number of opportunities for women to be involved in football has grown," Blackburn said. "Slowly, admittedly, but surely, you do see more and more women, so hopefully over time, those positions develop into more important ones."

Blackburn does, however, call the "football side" limited. "It's hard to expect change to come super quickly when there is not women's football. It's a harder case to crack," she said.

Indeed, there have been but a handful of female scouts in the NFL over the years. Bills vice president and assistant director of college scouting Linda Bogdan was the only active female scout in the league at the time of her death from cancer in 2009. She was 61.

"Linda was a heck of a scout, extremely qualified at critical analysis," Trask said. "Talent evaluation is not a skill possessed by only one gender, and Linda was highly respected."

Before Bogdan, whose father was team owner Ralph Wilson, there was Connie Carberg, who began work with the Jets as the receptionist for the scouting department, then became the NFL's first female scout in 1976.

Carberg's ceremonial job of making the Jets' last draft pick might be considered patronizing today, but it represented progress then. Carberg, who was also credited with the drafting of star defensive lineman Gastineau, said she was thrilled at the time and did not detect any blatant sexism.

"I was very, very fortunate," Carberg said. She worked for the league office with NFL Alumni after leaving the Jets in 1980 when she was married, then left that job a few years later after becoming pregnant. "I don't know if it was because I didn't go around saying, 'Look at me, I'm a woman, respect me.' I really didn't."

Some 40 years later, however, women don't appear to have made much progress in the area of scouting, which used to be virtually every GM's first job in football.

Mark Bartelstein, an influential agent for NFL and NBA players, said the notion that women have an inherent handicap in football is still held by those in the business.

"From our standpoint, there is some innate advantage to having played the game," Bartelstein said. "People in our office played or coached at a high level, which is an advantage from a players' standpoint, that the person representing them really gets it, has been there and understands the little nuances.

Some agents take players to strip clubs. If that's what they're looking for, I'm not their guy ... I'll tell them, 'No, I've never been in the locker room, I've never been on the field. But as a player, you have never been in court, never negotiated a contract. Let me be your eyes and ears, your mentor.'
Kelli Masters, NFL agent

"If you haven't played, it's hard to overcome that hurdle. But it doesn't mean you can't. With intelligence and creativity, you can overcome it. But it is a hurdle."

Many agents have gone on to become NFL executives. Tamika Cheatham is among those hoping being a woman won't impede that path. The Arizona criminal attorney, judge pro tem and fledgling agent said that even at 48, she would consider an unpaid internship or going back to school for an MBA if it meant helping her break into the league. Cheatham has had clients who were undrafted free agents but no draftees.

Despite the long hours and financial strain (agents are expected to pay for their clients' training before the NFL draft, at a minimum of $20,000 to $40,000, in addition to registration fees, union dues and liability insurance -- premiums that run an estimated $24,000 annually), Cheatham said she won't let go of the dream.

"My motivation is more on the ownership side," she said. "I know it's a big dream, but I grew up in Southern California, my father didn't have sons and took my sister and I to Rams and Dodgers games. At the time, there were almost no minorities, but Georgia Frontiere was then the owner of the Rams, so as a little girl, I thought there needed to be more women and minorities in power positions in professional sports.

"My husband's [divorce] attorney asked me, 'How long are you going to chase this dream?' My mother did, too, the other day. I'm hoping and praying it will open up at some point."

Jim Kahler, executive director of the Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University, said he thinks women "can make a bigger splash on the agent side."

"I have this discussion with my grad students all the time," said Kahler, previously the senior VP of sales and marketing for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and WNBA's Cleveland Rockers. "It's a hard program, we recruit 20 students, but if all of them want to be GMs of the Cleveland Browns, it would be disastrous. Where we think we're better equipped, is to have people [aspire to become] the president of the Browns and run the business side. I think there are more opportunities there than ever before."

The program has graduated several women who have gone onto entry positions with NFL teams and the league office, both on the football side and business side.

"I tell women [who want to be in football] not to ever give up, but there's going to have to be change agents," Kahler said. "I think that will happen over time, but if they say, 'I have all the skills and football is where I want to be' and ask, 'Where can I make a bigger impact?' I'd say it has to be on the agent side.

"What do you need to be a good agent? A law degree, maybe a master's, the ability to sell and communicate and negotiate, and if you look at the jobs very successful women have in this country, a lot have that skill set rather than getting in line behind the guy who was a star in college and blew his knee out. You can get stuck on that escalator not going up anymore."

Kelli Masters grew up a football fan in Oklahoma City, practiced law for five years and then found herself representing former athletes who got into legal snags with their nonprofit foundations.

"It led to questions--'Why isn't your agent doing this?'--and then they, or typically their mothers, would ask, 'I wish you could have been here at the beginning, from the draft,' " Masters recalled.

"I resisted because I didn't see myself in that arena, but the more I looked at it, I finally decided to get certified, not necessarily because I thought it would be fun, because I actually thought it was the hardest thing I could possibly do."

Masters represents five NFL players and was the first female agent of a first-round pick when Gerald McCoy was taken No. 3 overall by Tampa Bay in 2010. Still, she said if she had to do it over again, she would do it differently.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Gerald McCoy had a female agent when he was drafted No. 3 overall by Tampa Bay in 2010.

"Sometimes I think if I had worked for the Denver Broncos or Dallas Cowboys on the personnel side or business side, it would have been more helpful if I wanted to move onto a job for the Players Association or the league," she said.

Masters said that as an agent, there is more she can't control and that much more sexism exists.

"There are plenty of times the door is slammed in my face just because I am a woman and not because I'm not equipped or capable," she said. "There are just plenty of opportunities for sexism."

Masters and Cheatham said they have gotten more resistance from fellow agents than from teams.

"Generally when I call a team, they do call back and they tend to remember me because I'm a woman," Cheatham said. "But I'll see male agents at the [NFL] combine and they'll say, 'You're still here?' and try to talk me out of [pursuing my career]."

Masters said she has had similar experiences, and that when she's recruiting clients, sometimes athletes will tell her they are not comfortable with the idea of having a woman as an agent.

"Some agents take players to strip clubs," Masters said. "If that's what they're looking for, I'm not their guy ... I'll tell them, 'No, I've never been in the locker room, I've never been on the field. But as a player, you have never been in court, never negotiated a contract. Let me be your eyes and ears, your mentor. You focus on your game and I'll make sure to eliminate [the worry] in your life. I'm not going to tell you how to play football but I am going to work my tail off for you.' "

While there may be no guaranteed path to a position in an NFL organization, Blackburn does not hesitate to say, 'I'm fortunate to be where I am because of my family being here.' "

But the daughter of Bengals owner Mike Brown may be selling herself short. A math and economics major at Dartmouth, Blackburn practiced law for two years before joining the Bengals in 1991 and is one of the most highly respected executives in the game.

And while Blackburn shares the "in" of having family connections with Dallas Cowboys executive VP and chief brand officer Charlotte Jones Anderson, the daughter of Jerry Jones, and other women in the league, there are far more examples of male executives who share the last name of the team owner, including the Krafts, McCaskeys, Joneses, McNairs, Rooneys, Maras and Glazers.

In addition to her academic credentials, Blackburn brought a long history of experience in the game just by growing up in her family.

"I was always around the football business," Blackburn said. "I was immersed in it."

It was similar for Carberg, whose father was the Jets' team physician. She said there was a steady stream of players and coaches filing through their house when she was a kid, and she was encouraged to sit in on football conversations and soaked up as much as she could.

"When I sat in the stands at a game, I learned from the people I sat around," she said. "Then I went to Ohio State and I met Woody Hayes ... "

"I had a lot of mentors," Carberg said. "I'd get to my job at 7:30 in the morning and stay late. To me, it was total happiness, my passion, my love."

It's the common denominator with all of them. It has to be.

Trask, a self-proclaimed "odd man out" growing up, laughed as she said, "When my family was out in the sunshine participating in sports during football season, I was the one who said I wanted to stay home and watch the game. They thought they brought home the wrong baby from the hospital."

Trask interned in the Raiders' legal department while a law school student at USC, rejoined the team four years later, in 1987, and eventually oversaw the organization's business operations and legal department before ascending to the role of CEO in 1997.

From Trask to Blackburn, and from Aponte to Bonk to Gordon and beyond, an unquenchable work ethic combined with a love of the game have made these women among the most respected and valued employees in the league. And that's the point, Trask said.

"These teams are billion-dollar assets, give or take, and if I owned one, I would staff it with the best people possible in every single role," Trask said. "And I think there's a place there for every ethnicity, every race, every religion, both genders and all differentiating characteristics and beliefs. I'd hire with regard to merit as I believe that's the best way to run a business."

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