Pro Bowl week helps shine light on roles for women in football

Stephen Ruiz, Orlando Sentinel

When he was the NFL’s head of officiating, Mike Pereira advised a marketing intern.

The intern played football, and Pereira, now a rules analyst for Fox Sports, agreed to review game tape. Another man in the league office, whom the intern did not recognize, observed from the back of the room.

“I got a call later from him, saying, ‘We’d like to offer you another internship,’’’ the intern said. “Then I said, ‘Do I have to apply? Do I need to go online?’ He said, ‘No, I am hiring you because you could run left and throw right.’’’

Samantha Rapoport’s quarterbacking skills helped lead eventually to her current role as the NFL’s director of football development. Who knows how many women like her are at Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex this week for USA Football’s fourth annual Women’s World Football Games and the first Women’s Careers in Football Forum?

The events lead into the Pro Bowl at 8 Sunday night at Camping World Stadium. ESPN will televise the game.

“Playing football didn’t seem like it was possible for women,’’ said Elise Aubourg, a defensive end and outside linebacker from St. Petersburg. “Being involved in the NFL seemed even more [impossible]. It is interesting to learn just about some of the different careers. I am just really excited to see whether that is something that will pique my interest.’’

Aubourg was among 220 players from 20 countries who began practicing Wednesday, Elizabeth Faust of USA Football said. Games are set for Friday and Saturday. Those players will attend the forum Thursday and Friday, as will 30 other women attending a coaching academy.

The forum will include discussions about career paths in football operations, pathways to coaching and scouting, networking with NFL personnel, and diversity and roles in football operations.

“I want to coach,’’ said Birgit Schwenk, a lineman from Mainz, Germany. “It is close to my work as a social worker and my dream to be a teacher. I want to show that there isn’t a difference from girls to boys on the field. We’re playing the same game.’’

Rapoport said the forum aims to create a pipeline funneling women to all levels of the sport.

“If 150 women say, ‘I want to work in football in some respect,’ that could be something as simple as, ‘I want to start coaching my local high-school football team and keep my current career,’’’ said Rapoport, 35. “Or it could be, ‘I want to leave my career and get an internship at the college or professional level.’ Or, ‘I want to learn about scouting.’

“We want them to have the information to take that next step.’’

Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, said women are a vast resource that too often is untapped.

The league received a C+ for gender hiring practices on the institute’s NFL Racial & Gender Report Card the past two years.

“There is a feeder system for them out there, and the percentage of female fans for the NFL is quite a significant one,’’ Lapchick said. “They know that women out there are interested.’’

During a break in practice Wednesday, Orlando Anarchy lineman Melinda Sparks said the possibilities are a great gift.

“This is like, some of the women have said, Christmas for football,’’ Sparks said. “We get the message out that it’s real, that we want to play. We want to have a venue.’’

As a girl, Rapoport slept with a football.

Now she wants to awaken others to how women can make football a better game.

“We want to normalize seeing females on the sidelines,’’ Rapoport said. “I get asked a lot about, ‘Do you want to see the first female this or that?’

“That really isn’t our mission. Our mission is for it not to be a story when we see a female coach or scout, for when the first female general manager happens. When that happens, we know we have accomplished our first round of goals with this initiative.’’

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