College football is arguably the most testosterone-fueled cultural staple of our society. The autumn ritual involves young men playing a violent game, one that packs stadiums and tailgates across the country with fans so rabid that it sometimes seems they will excuse any boorish behavior. It isn’t exactly the epitome of gender equity.
So with the sport’s ultimate matchup — the College Football Playoff championship game set to be held in our backyard on Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium — some may be startled to learn that the organization that runs the season-ending tournament is largely run by women.
“People are still kind of surprised,” said Allison Doughty, director of events and hospitality services for CFP. “They’ll walk into the room and say, ‘Oh, it’s all women.’ Up to the COO and down to the interns, it’s one of the more diverse places I’ve worked.”
There are five women in senior leadership positions, running the College Football Playoff: Doughty, Chief Operating Officer Andrea Williams, Director of Stadium and Game Operations Nikki Epley, Senior Director of Operations and Logistics Laila Brock, and Senior Director of External Relations and Branding Gina Lehe. Add in Patricia Ernstrom, executive director of the Bay Area Host Committee, and the championship game is a lesson in what a workplace can look like if the boss has an open mind when it comes to hiring and the door to advancement is unlocked.
“To our executive director, it doesn’t matter what gender or race or what background you are, it’s important to get the right people in the right positions,” Williams said of her boss, Bill Hancock.
Hancock, former director of the NCAA Final Four, has been the CFP executive director since 2012. He and his former COO, Michael Kelly — who left last year to become athletic director at the University of South Florida — were committed to getting the best people in position.
The CFP is a massive production, based in Dallas year-round and thrown into hyper-drive on Dec. 2, when the four semifinal teams are announced. This year’s semifinals are at the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla., and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29. The organizing team will begin arriving in Santa Clara at the end of December and work nonstop until the championship game is held on Monday, Jan. 7. Then they will take the whole operation down and prepare to do it all again next year in New Orleans.
“Tear it down, build it back up — we’re very efficient,” Lehe said. “I’m biased, but I think women are great at juggling. Multitasking is in our DNA. We excel at it.”
Some in the organization call themselves Team GSD — Get (Stuff) Done. And that efficiency helps quiet any sexism they might encounter.
“I always say I might not know all the X’s and O’s but I can run a football game like nobody’s business,” said Brock.
To be sure, sexism does still exist. Almost all of the women working for CFP were involved several years ago when Condoleezza Rice was named to the committee that selects the four teams. At the time, some criticized her appointment, including former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who said, “To understand football, you’ve got to play with your hand in the dirt.” To which committee member Archie Manning said of he and fellow members and former quarterbacks Pat Haden and Oliver Luck, “Tell Pat we never had our hands in the dirt, either.”
Doughty said she runs into people who still think the only opportunity for women in football is as a cheerleader. When flying, Lehe avoids telling male seatmates what she does for a living because inevitably they will want to quiz her to see if she passes some kind of test.
“They don’t want to go there with me,” Lehe said. “You have to have thick skin. I don’t care what you do in this (sports) business, thick skin is required.”
Most of the women came to their jobs through a lifelong love of sports. Some — like Williams, Epley and Brock — played collegiate sports. Others, like Lehe, had that dream denied because of a high school injury. After her plans to play volleyball at Loyola Marymount were derailed when her knee was badly hurt, Lehe got out the Associated Press basketball poll and applied to 10 of the top schools. She ended up at the University of Arizona, bugged an assistant basketball coach until he helped her get a job working stats for the team and has been working in sports ever since.
Doughty’s father was a sportswriter and she grew up in press boxes, thinking journalism might be her only option for a sports career.
“I didn’t know there were all these other jobs, the opportunities for careers,” she said. She got a job while in college at Virginia, working in football recruiting, and has been in sports since.
Most of the women at CFP have spent the majority of their careers as the only woman in their office, in their meetings, on the conference calls. They’ve found their current workplace a totally different experience.
“It’s empowering,” said Brock. “You know somebody’s got your back. That there’s somebody else that’s going through the same struggles that you’re going through and they’re right down the hall, not across the country.”
The women at CFP try to pass it along — both the awareness of how many sports-related careers there are and also the opportunity. They are all active mentors. They tend to hire more female interns than men, hoping to keep the door to sports careers wide open. What used to be an exclusive fraternity is becoming more diverse.
“Sports is such a small world anyway, and it used to be almost incestual,” Epley said of past hiring practices. “The more we put it out there, and young women see it, the more they will want to get involved.”
College football is still a testosterone-laden exercise and scandals often reflect that. This season alone there has been the mishandled tragedy at the University of Maryland, where a 19-year-old player collapsed and died after a practice, and Ohio State’s suspension of head coach Urban Meyer for mishandling domestic violence accusations against an assistant coach. Could leadership more sensitive to such issues have made a difference?
“If you look around at the landscape of college football, I think we need more women in leadership positions,” Doughty said.
The sport’s ultimate game is ahead of the curve