Meet the Two Women Shaking Up the NFL

Sam Rapoport
Venessa Hutchinson

Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Sam Rapoport knows first-hand the challenge of landing a job in the NFL. In 2003, Rapoport, a former quarterback who had recently graduated from Montreal’s McGill University, knew she needed a standout application. She got crafty. Included with her resume was an actual football with a message that read, ‘What other quarterback could accurately deliver a football 386 miles?’  Rapoport landed a marketing internship with the league and began an inspiring ascension that has culminated in her current role of helping open jobs in areas that for much of football’s history had been unofficially closed off to women.


Rapoport’s primary function, which is highly supported by the NFL, is to create a pipeline for women to football operations and scouting jobs. Partnering with Rapoport is Senior Manager of Football Development Venessa Hutchinson who worked in football operations at Boston College and then as a football operations and player personnel coordinator for the Cleveland Browns before helping Rapoport to normalize football.


The two have worked in concert to grow the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, their signature two-day event at the Combine in Indianapolis, into a massive job creation success for women who would have never been able to interface with top football decision makers including head coach and general managers. Since the forum began four years, 98 women have landed jobs with NFL teams in coaching, scouting, strength and conditioning and beyond.


The league has a way to go before it is truly representative of a fanbase in which 47% are female. But since Rapoport and Hutchinson strategically started creating the pipeline, we’ve had a litany of full-time female coaches in the NFL, a woman coach in the Super Bowl, and women thriving in scouting and analytics roles.


I chatted with Rapoport and Hutchinson about the current climate for women looking to break into football operations and why despite the exponential rise in representation, there’s still so much work to be done.

Melissa Jacobs: Sam, I know the Women’s Careers in Football Forum was your brainchild in 2016. Why do you think the league bought into your idea?


Sam Rapoport: We created it in the first two years but it didn’t really come alive until Venessa and I put our heads together and created something now that we believe is absolutely incredible and working well and having impact. But I think everyone understood the concept that there was a bridge missing between an underrepresented group of people and football jobs. So everyone agreed with the need for a program, an opportunity to get people in underrepresented groups whether that be women with this program or HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Careers and Football Forum for HBCU students, to be in the room with people who could potentially hire them. And our clubs started to want it more and more and ask for it more and more so there was continuously more buy in as the years went on.


MJ: Your roster of coaches and team execs who attend seems to grow each year. How hard was it to get buy in at the beginning?

SR: It was a couple who put their hands up at the beginner and we’ll be forever grateful – [Bills co-owner] Kim Pegula and [Washington coach] Ron Rivera said they wanted to be involved. We went from seven clubs in the first year to 26 clubs this year who have participated or interviewed candidates so I give a lot of credit Coach Rivera and Kim Pegula for speaking about this behind closed doors at league meetings, challenging other coaches and owners to get involved.


MJ: What did you two change about the forum to turn it into the powerhouse that it is today?


Venessa Hutchinson: We went from changing the location from the Pro Bowl in Orlando to the Combine in Indianapolis where most of the clubs and people we want to be there are already there so they don’t have to fly or go out of their way to attend. The change of venue was big as was a change to the structure, with breakout sessions led by club executives. Participants got that one-on-one time and leaders got to see who stuck out, who was asking questions. who was really intriguing.


SR: To add on to that you speak to the power of diversity. When you look at Venessa’s background and my background, they are complementary. I grew up at the league office and Venessa’s had experiences in professional football, college football and at a club as well. So I think part of the beauty of our partnership is that she brings her experiences to the table whereas a lot of the time Venessa would challenge me and say that’s a really bad idea. And we have a great working relationship in that sense where I feel like my strength is big thinking and V’s strength is strategic execution and bringing me down to reality at times so I think that Venessa’s breadth of experience in all levels of football helps to speak to what the coaches and GMs are going to want from this in order for it to be successful and I really feel like that’s part of why this has been so successful, bringing the diversity of our backgrounds together for strategic planning.

MJ: How much do you think societal shifts and the empowerment of women – everything from Me Too to now having Kamala Harris as a VP candidate – have played a role into your accomplishments with the pipeline? Are male coaches and executives seeing women in a different light?


SR: For us internally, there was absolutely no struggle to get started. Commissioner Goodell’s been pushing this in different areas for over a decade and [NFL Executive VP] Troy Vincent initially hired my position to work on this. We already had the leadership saying, ‘Absolutely, we’re doing this.’ But I think where it helped is potentially for some people at clubs who are hesitant or had never had a female in their organization, they’re starting to feel the ground shift from under them a little in that this is happening now in every sport. Many clubs now, the majority of our clubs, have females on the football side so if you don’t it’s starting to look like ’why not?’ I think that’s where we have an advantage in what’s going on in society in terms of gender equality.


MJ: You guys facilitating the connections via the forum is obviously huge but it’s the not the only factor to getting a job.  What advice do you guys give to women who are trying to land a job in football?


VH: My biggest piece of advice is do what you can with what you have whether you attend the forum or not. One of those examples is to ask if you’re reaching out to executives, be it on Linkedin or sending a blind email stating there’s a position you want to learn about or someone you have a mutual connection with. Are you working in college football? Strike up a conversation with the scouts coming in and out of the office to get an idea what their job is like. It’s about trying to grow your current network and growing outside of the current role you do have, to expand yourself as much as you can. That way worked for me personally. It’s how you grow your brand, your respect, and makes people who are in a position to hire to call you and say, ‘Hey, we met 3 or 4 years ago, I think you’d be great for this role that is now open.’

SR: To add to that, something that we teach at the forum is that it’s a mix of being assertive and shooting your shot with, and this may sound immaterial, but what is your online presence? When a general manager or head coach or whomever hears about a potential candidate no matter your race, gender or ethnicity, people are going online to see who you are. What does your profile picture look like? What are you saying on social media? Are you cursing on social media? People think because they’re private on social media they can post whatever they want but the reality is our business is so small and insular that you’re probably friends with someone who can tell me a little about who you are.


I think when you’re getting started in this getting rid of the mentality of, ‘Oh, I don’t want to bother her or maybe I shouldn’t reach out because I’m not qualified.’ Forget all that and go for it and while you’re doing that, audit your online presence so people looking at you will have the perception that you are professional and serious about the job, that you’re not overly focused on yourself, saying I’m the first female coach in history or that I’m going to be the first female GM. But moreso you need to showcase your passion for football. Those are very pragmatic and specific but if you can master both you’re in a good position to start to network and ultimately land those jobs.


MJ: At this point, what is the pipeline for qualified women to get YOUR attention, to be invited to the forum and receive your guidance?


VH: To start, we get recommendations from clubs and people we know throughout the industry. We typically look for women who have 1-3 years of experience in football whether that’s coaching high school football, whether that’s working in a college football office, Division I, Division III, whatever it may be. Just someone who has already taken that step to get into the industry, someone who understands what it’s like working in a football office with coaches and players. We look at what areas they’re working in whether that is coaching, scouting, equipment, strength and conditioning, and front offices, areas that are underrepresented on the NFL side of things, We look at those candidates and try and get to know them and go from there.


Before I got here we had a candidate Salli Clavelle, who is a now a pro personnel analyst with the San Francisco 49ers. That was Salli’s story, she had worked in college football, she was a director of recruiting operations at Tulane. She had that 1-3 years of experience, she knew what it was like working in the industry, she had been studying film at Tulane and she became kind of this perfect entry level candidate for a role at the National Football League. We saw Salli’s story and thought we should try copying that a bit.

SR: Yes, we told her, we called it the Salli Clavelle Model. We started to learn what worked based off the success that Salli had and created for herself. We get recommendations from a lot of people, which is important because we don’t have the bandwidth to create an application process. We base it on recommendations and we have a committee of folks who make the ultimate decisions on who attends the forum.


MJ: Are we at a tipping point for women getting these jobs in football operations?  There are seemingly so many new hires these days I can barely keep track.


SR: To me it feels like a tipping point. We used to get very excited when women were hired directly from the forum and we still do. But what we’re seeing now is women not needing the forum to get hired in jobs because the culture has been set that we should include women, all women, in the process of hiring for football operations jobs. We can’t rely on the forum until the end of time to provide the female candidates so we really want it to be spark plug and catalyze the movement, not be fully responsible for it. So It’s remarkable to see and Venessa and I virtual high five every time it happens – where we see women getting hired for coaching and scouting jobs and we’ve never even heard of them.


MJ: A couple years ago when Bruce Arians walked out of your forum, he declared that he was going to add a female coach to his staff, then he added two!  Is it helpful for a coach to say he’s going to hire a woman for his staff in advance of making the hire in the sense that it punctuates the importance of having a diverse staff or can it be hurtful since perhaps an equally qualified man doesn’t have a chance?


SR: I have a really strong opinion on this and Venessa I’d like to hear yours but I think we all need to get more comfortable with demanding balance on our staffs and that takes intentionality. [Tampa Bay coaches] Maral [Javadifar] and Lo [Locust] were not hired because they are female but if Coach Arians is looking at his staff and saying we’re not balanced and we need to be and I need the top female candidates or I need to add black talent to my team, we all need to get more comfortable saying that because once you achieve that you’re optimizing your staff and performing your best.


If you don’t create specific intentional goals when you’re hiring the result will always be homogenous because you just land on ‘Do you know a guy?’ and ‘Do you know a guy?’ in all sports is what’s kept white straight men predominantly in these roles because white men typically know white men. I applaud the intentionality and think we all need to get a little more comfortable with it and to be honest, I challenge myself to be more comfortable with it so we can achieve balance.

VH: I’m 100% with Sam. And I think the great part too about the intentionality is with Coach Arians, every coach on his staff, wherever they go next, they’re very accustomed to having a woman on staff. They see the importance of it, they see the benefit of it and they can go build their staffs the same way. There’s an effect of being in that environment with Coach Arians and taking that intentionality elsewhere.


SR: That butterfly effect is exactly why we may be reaching a tipping point because those coaches are going elsewhere. Look what happened with Sean McDermott when he left Carolina under Coach Rivera, they first thing he did in Buffalo was make sure his staff was balanced. It really spreads that way.


MJ: What about the intentionality when it comes to hiring women of color? Has that been more prioritized in the past year or so?


SR: We’ve always had those goals for the representation of women in our programming and one of the things we learned through a lot of research is that if you execute gender equity programs without an intentionality around women of color, and specifically Black and African American women, that white women are the beneficiaries, that white women are the ones to get the jobs and interviews because there’s the most familiarity with white men.  So we have a strong intentionality on that and internal goals with the bare minimum percentage of all demographics of women within the program. We’ve had those goals and haven’t had a problem.


We’re proud of that element of the program and we’ve talked to the other sports leagues about that same intentionality because I’ve seen time and time again panels of all white women, programs of all white women and the disadvantage that it puts all other women, it’s exponential, and hurts their progress so it’s a critical component to the program for sure.


MJ: You have Calliie Browson who is the Kevin Stefanski’s Chief of Staff at the Browns, Katie Sowers who coached in the Super Bowl and again it seems like every day you guys are announcing another woman who has been hired in a scouting or football ops role. Have you succeeded?




MJ: Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you there.


SR: [Laughing] No not at all, it’s just when we get credit for these things it often doesn’t feel like we’ve reached success yet, we’re not resting on the small amount of success we’ve seen. We want to get so many firsts out of the way – they’re incredible to celebrate but then to move on from them. We have not had a female general manager. We’ve not had a female assistant general manager. We feel like there’s so far to go and that’s why the strategic model around the sustainability and butterfly effect of this is so critical because we want this to infiltrate all levels of football and not just entry level which is where we predominantly focus. V, I really want to hear from you. I feel like we’ve scratched the surface and if we’re in this role for another 15 years, we’d just keep achieving and achieving.

VH: Same. Obviously great things are happening and when we see the number of women getting hired, it’s incredible. But we’re seeing those hiring in the entry level roles and we want to see them work their way up. I think the highest-ranking women are Salli Clavelle and Hannah Burnett at the pro and college scout ranks, there’s a lot higher to go and you want to see them get there. Same on the coaching side of things. There’s still a ways to go. As Sam always says, ‘When her and my jobs are no longer needed, that’s when we’ve been successful.’ When we no longer have to push the awareness and it’s just normal for them to succeed and in high up roles, then the work is done.


SR: I completely obviously agree with that but another part of that is we have a lot of women – women of color – who are in the entry level ranks, certainly on the football side and also on the business side and we really need to see Blacks and African Americans specifically ascend to leadership positions.  It’s something we’re critically focused on and something we don’t feel we’ve had as much success as we could have.


MJ: Looking back on everything that’s been accomplished in the past five years, what are you both most proud of?


SR: Part of the job that’s the most fulfilling for me to the task to ensure that Black women, women of color are getting jobs at the same rate as white women. We’re seeing that and that’s what I’m most proud of with this particular program.


VH: I’m super grateful to work with Sam on this initiative – the amount of flexibility, autonomy, and the brainstorming we’ve been able to do. It’s been one of the greatest experiences of all the places I’ve worked because there’s difference being made. It’s one thing to work for a team and you’re assisting on what happens on Saturday or Sunday but this is a lot bigger than that.