Arizona Cardinals' New Hire Coaches Like a Girl
The Cardinals are bringing in Jennifer Welter as a training camp and preseason intern, coaching inside linebackers. Welter has been the linebackers and special teams coach of the Indoor Football League's Texas Revolution since February, and has had an extensive playing career. She played rugby at Boston College and professional football for 14 years, mostly with the Women's Football Alliance. Last year, she became the first woman to play in a men's pro football game at a non-kicking position, entering a preseason Revolution game at running back. An unnamed NFL player told Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman, "The truth is, [Welter] has more playing experience than some of the coaches who coach me now."
That directly refutes one of the usual excuses for not hiring women in sports: that they lack the professional playing experience required to understand the game. That's not a barrier for male coaches. Last season, only six of the 32 head coaches in the NFL had ever played in the league. The New England Patriots' Bill Belichick was a center/tight end at Division-III Wesleyan, and former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley didn't play football at any level.
That wasn't always the case, and the decline in the number of football coaches with NFL experience speaks to the expansion of coaching duties beyond the field. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo put it, playing experience "has become less important as head coaches become more like CEOs." Delegating tasks, assembling a coaching staff, and managing personnel are key skills the modern-day coach must have. Or, as Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said in announcing Welter's hire, "coaching is nothing more than teaching." He stressed that athletes care solely about how coaches can help them play better, and is confident they will have no problem accepting Welter's authority. (Her doctorate in psychology may not hurt, either.)
That might be a bit too optimistic, but you can sense the tide is shifting toward including more women in roles of authority in sports. The changes have been slow but encouraging: In April, the NFL hired Sarah Thomas, the league's first full-time female official; last year, the San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA. Hammon has extensive playing experience at the pro level -- she played for the WNBA's San Antonio Stars for 16 years -- and is well on her way to becoming the first female head coach in professional sports. This month, she was head coach of the Spurs' Summer League team, leading them to a league title.
The Cardinals and the Spurs have long shared a progressive approach toward management, so it makes sense that they are the teams at the forefront of coaching's gender revolution. The Spurs have won five championships since 1999 thanks to their penchant for developing international talent and other nontraditional approaches. Meanwhile, as Freeman notes, the Cardinals have historically broken barriers in personnel moves, hiring Adele Harris, the NFL's first black woman executive, in 1978, and having the league's first black general manager-head coach pairing in 2004, Rod Graves and Dennis Green.
As it stands, Welter has a shot at eventually becoming the first female coordinator in the NFL, but does she signal the start of a new wave of female coaching hires? As long as playing experience remains the bar by which women must "prove" themselves, and professional women's football remains small-time, the NFL is likely to remain highly stratified along gender lines.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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