Sports

As the Number of Women in the N.F.L. Expands, So Does This Group Text

A decade before Catherine Raîche became the current highest-ranking femaleexecutive with an N.F.L. team, she was a scout for the Canadian Football League.

Back then, it was still uncommon for a woman to hold a job evaluating football players, a role that required Raîche to travel the country looking for talent. In a few instances, she said, when she arrived at a college or a training camp, football staff members there would ask for her business card to confirm her identity.

“When I was asked, ‘Where is the scout?’” Raîche, 34, said in a phone interview, “I would be like, ‘Well, it’s me.’”

Raîche, now the Cleveland Browns assistant general manager and vice president of football operations, is part of an influx of women who have permeated pro football in a relatively short span, taking on the kinds of inside-the-game but outside-an-office roles that had been reserved for men. As their numbers increase, the women have formed their own support systems to navigate a culture that has historically excluded them.

After Jen Welter became the first woman to coach in the N.F.L. in 2015, Katie Sowers made history by becoming the first to coach in a Super Bowl in 2020, and Sarah Thomas in 2021 become the first woman to officiate the title game. Nearly 70 women, according to league statistics, are in scouting and personnel roles, positions critical to the selection and development of players, and 10 female assistant coaches are in the league.

“I think it’s great and there’s just so much interest now,” said Connie Carberg, 72, who was hired by the Jets 1974 as a secretary and was later promoted to the first female scout in league history. “Back then, there just weren’t any other women doing it. Now they’re really enjoying it and learning it.”

Jen Welter became the first woman to coach in the N.F.L. with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.Credit…Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Scouting and assistant coaching jobs have typically been the entry point for those with dreams of running a team or becoming a head coach. Nearly 75 percent of current N.F.L. general managers — a role that typically oversees player contracts, draft picks, trades and other major roster decisions — got their start as scouts evaluating collegiate and professional players through film study, attending games and practices and interviewing coaches about an athlete’s character.

Scott Pioli, the former general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs and a former personnel executive for the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, said hiring for those entry positions had traditionally been marked by racial and gender discrimination as well as nepotism. Coaches and front office executives tended to stock the jobs with their sons, their friends’ sons or former N.F.L. players.

“One of the fascinating things I often heard people say over the years is, ‘How is this going to affect me or my son?’” Pioli, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said in a phone interview. “‘I want my son to get a training camp internship, I want my son to be a ball boy.’ But what about your daughter?”

He continued, citing a speech from the soccer player Abby Wambach, “There’s only so much opportunity, and the people in power and control will say, ‘OK, more for her will mean less for me.’”

As the N.F.L. experiences a wave of women in football personnel positions, the league has also faced accusations of discrimination over its treatment of female employees. Attorneys general for New York and California in May announced a joint investigation into those claims.

Deshaun Watson during practice at the Cleveland Browns facility in Berea, Ohio.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

Raîche was hired in May 2022, two months after the Browns traded for quarterback Deshaun Watson as he faced claims from more than two dozen women who accused him of coercion and sexual misconduct in massage appointments.

Raîche said General Manager Andrew Berry informed her of the research the team had done, including an investigation from third-party counsel, before signing Watson. Berry had been Raîche’s direct supervisor when they both worked for the Eagles, where Raîche started as a personnel and football operations coordinator in 2019 and was later promoted to vice president of football operations.

“I had complete trust in ownership, and in Andrew’s plan and due diligence and all the work that they had done with their respective teams to make this acquisition,” Raîche said. “I had really no concerns coming in into all the work that had been done to make sure that we left no stone unturned.”

A group text is a lifeline.

The N.F.L. has tried to establish pipelines for women. In 2022, the N.F.L. expanded the Rooney Rule — the mandate that forces teams to interview minority candidates for leadership positions — to include women. And since 2017, the N.F.L. has hosted the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, a multiday event to connect women working at college and professional teams to hiring managers and offer panel sessions.

But women have also developed their own networks to support one another. Three years ago, Raîche and Ameena Soliman, the Eagles’ director of personnel operations, started a group text through the messaging service WhatsApp to connect women in the N.F.L. across coaching, scouting and other roles. They use the message chain to post jobs, celebrate promotions and ask questions about the dress code at certain events. The chat has ballooned to 129 people, including women in various non-coaching roles, as of August.

“It’s just nice to feel connected and just know that you have a community out there of other women,” said Hannah Burnett, 28, a scout for the Giants.

“It’s just nice to feel connected and just know that you have a community out there of other women,” said Hannah Burnett, center, a scout for the Giants.Credit…Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Burnett was hired in 2020 after two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons to survey players in 13 states in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. She lives in Denver, and during busy times, she said she averages about 20 days each month on the road. The nomadic lifestyle typical of most scouts leaves her detached from colleagues at the team facility, which she said she would visit about five times a year for training camp and draft meetings.

She and other football personnel from around the league convene at a handful of off-season events — the draft combine in March, the Senior Bowl all-star game in Mobile, Ala., in February — where coaches, scouts and league executives evaluate college players, but also look to hire new staffers.

After finishing the day’s evaluations, many of those football staff members migrate to local restaurants and hotel bars to network, reconnect and, in some cases, party.

Burnett said she preferred being with peers in smaller settings or spontaneously meeting with other female colleagues instead of socializing in big gatherings. “It’s just a really good way to be connected to each other in person and have those conversations and just kind of let your guard down a little bit,” Burnett said.

All of the women interviewed for this article said they had not been made to feel uncomfortable in the big group meet-ups, but Pioli said he had heard “horror stories” of how women were treated in those predominantly male settings. Other women have said they met other forms of resistance, including insulting quips.

During the season, Ashton Washington, 27, the player personnel coordinator for the Chicago Bears, attends a meeting after every game with about 15 other people, including Ryan Poles, the general manager, to grade each player’s performance. Though she is often the only woman present, Washington said, she feels emboldened to share her opinion.

It’s an open floor, and I think for me, just being a female in this and having the ability to be in a room with these guys that have been in the league for so long and learn from them, that’s huge,” Washington said. “I love every bit of it, and I feel very confident around them when I talk and just saying what’s on my mind and being assertive.”

Ashton Washington, the player personnel coordinator for the Chicago Bears, says she is often the only woman in the room during meetings with colleagues.Credit…Chicago Bears

Still, Washington says the group chat provides an added benefit. “It’s good to see what they’re going through or if they’re going through something similar to you and being able to incorporate it into your work,” she said.

The conversation, and the number of participants, expand.

As the group chat expanded, Raîche noticed that most of the women in it were in entry-level jobs. So she and Soliman, who declined to comment, brainstormed ways to offer career-development opportunities. They organized video calls held roughly every three months in which participants can talk about topics ranging from macro-level experiences as women in the profession to advice on the scouting vocabulary or the best shorts to wear for training camp in the summer heat.

Soliman also formed a mentoring program to pair younger women with more experienced ones.

“I thought there was kind of a void in terms of being able to connect with other women on the football side across the entire league, and we also felt like we didn’t even know who we all were,” Raîche said. “We wanted to make sure that once you’re in the league, we could promote vertical growth.”

Raîche and Ameena Soliman brainstormed ways to offer career development opportunities to members of the group text.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

Burnett was not paired with a formal mentor through the group chat partly because there were so few female scouts at that time, she said, and because she already considered Kelly Kleine Van Calligan, the executive director of football operations for the Denver Broncos, a confidant. Burnett looked up to Van Calligan, who was a scout for the Minnesota Vikings, and also lives in the Denver area.

Burnett now mentors Kasia Omilian, a scout for the Indianapolis Colts since 2021, and the two try to talk on the phone every two weeks, she said. The first few years on the road can be overwhelming, Burnett added, and she tries to make sure Omilian feels supported.

“I think a lot of times in this job, you internalize and you just deal with things and move on,” Burnett said. “But I just try to give her a safe space to talk to someone and try to be there and give her my tips and do anything that I can to just kind of make her life a little bit easier.”

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