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Thu, Dec. 05

Column: NFL and female coaches

The NFL season kicked off in the usual fashion, a number of close games, a few upsets, a touch of controversy, and a New England Patriots win, even without future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Tom Terrific was home with his supermodel wife, Gisele serving his Deflategate suspension. And in addition to a new Patriots quarterback, there were some other new faces along the sidelines and in the league office.

At the end of last season, the Buffalo Bills hired the NFL’s first fulltime female coach, Kathryn Smith. Smith had worked for Bills’ coach Rex Ryan for seven years, first with the Jets and for the past two seasons in Buffalo, although not as a fulltime coach. At the end of the 2015 season, Ryan offered her the position of Quality Control-Special Teams.

Smith isn’t the first female to coach in the NFL. Jen Welter, a former professional and semi-professional women’s league player, was a preseason coach for the Cardinals last year. But Smith is the first full time coach during the NFL’s regular season.

The NFL isn’t devoid of females, despite being perceived as a bastion of masculinity. Approximately thirty percent of the League’s front office employees are women, most of them in administration, athletic training, marketing and public relations. Higher up on the ladder is Buffalo’s co-owner Kim Pegula, who along with her husband, Terry, purchased the team two years ago from the estate of original owner Ralph Wilson.

Unlike Welter, Smith hadn’t played football when she began working with Ryan at age 23. What she had going for her was a passion for sports – she was a three-sport athlete in high school, has a college degree in sport management, and began her career as an NFL game day intern. In addition to passion, Smith has an unmatched work ethic, necessary traits at the professional level where the sport is all consuming - 24-7 during the season with little to no respite in the offseason.

Ryan and her fellow coaches have lauded Smith’s performance to date, despite the team’s 0-2 start that led to the firing of offensive coordinator Greg Roman. In a results oriented profession, coaches are evaluated on the team’s performance and with Ryan himself on the hot seat, Smith may set another first: The first female coach to be fired in the NFL.

Smith isn’t likely to be the last female coach in the NFL. Two months ago the League hired Sam Rapoport to fill the newly created position of Director of Football Development. Rapoport’s charge is to address the lack of women in coaching and scouting. She began by calling GMs and owners to set up a committee on gender inclusion. With the help of the committee, Rapoport, who played tackle football, will attempt to identify women like herself and Smith who are knowledgeable about the game. One of her goals is to create social networks for coaching candidates that hopefully will lead to employment.

The NFL is the third Major League team sport in the past two years to hire a woman coach. Last month the Phoenix Coyotes hired what is believed to be the first female fulltime coach in NHL history. Dawn Braid, who will serve as skating coach for the team, has a long history with the NHL, having served as a skating consultant for several teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames and last season for the Coyotes.

The NBA is the only league that has hired two female assistant coaches. Becky Hammon, a standout WNBA player, was hired as a coach for the San Antonio Spurs two years ago and Nancy Lieberman, who was a successful player and coach in the WNBA, began coaching with the Sacramento Kings last year.

MLB is the only Major League that has yet to hire a female coach, although last year, the Oakland A’s hired Justine Siegal as a guest coach in the Instructional League, a month-long, post-season training program.

Are female coaches in Major League sports a fad or a trend? As slow as progress is likely to be, as long as the women are competent and can gain the confidence of the players, here’s betting on the latter.

The author is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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