Jen Welter: Women, Publicity and Leverage
In the summer of 2015, Jen Welter took the sports world by storm becoming the first woman coach in NFL history. Welter was hired by the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with inside linebackers. But once her month-long internship with the Cardinals concluded, Welter didn’t land a full-time coaching job in the NFL.
This begs the question if Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians had any intentions of hiring Welter full-time or whether it was a publicity stunt for the Cardinal organization to be the first to give a woman a chance to coach in the NFL. A little less than a year prior to Welter being hired, Becky Hammon became the first full-time, paid woman coach in the NBA, working as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs. Even with her reputable collegiate and professional basketball resume and future Hall of Fame likelihood, it’s likely Hammon did have to intern with the Spurs to see if she would be a good fit. However, the groundbreaking news was that Hammon was actually hired as a full-time assistant coach… meaning the internship was private and the announcement of her being hired was made public; the complete opposite of Jen Welter’s situation.
In Welter’s case, her story would have been made complete if the national headlines announcing her as an assistant coaching intern were followed by her being hired as a full-time inside linebacker coach at the end of training camp. So, if Cardinals’ head coach Arians was unsure if Welter would be a good fit for the Cardinals organization – or whatever reason she wasn’t hired full-time – wouldn’t it have made sense to wait until he was sure before going public? Of course not, because there’s no publicity in keeping quiet about a woman coaching in the NFL “possibly” becoming a day-to-day norm. For example, journalists are often criticized for competing to be the first to break a story no matter the cost, but everyone wants to be first and make history in every industry, and sports are no different.
This leads me to the lingering question: is the NFL really ready for a woman to coach men in arguably the most masculine sport on the planet? If not Welter then who else? She has a remarkable resume: she played 14 seasons in women’s pro football and was the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a men’s professional league as a running back for the Texas Revolution according to nbcnews,com. She also served as a linebacker and special teams coach for the Revolution and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Most notably, she has a master’s degree in sports psychology and a Ph.D in psychology. It’s likely that a lot of the male coaches on NFL team staffs don’t have the resume Welter has; unfortunately, she doesn’t have the same physical makeup as they do so her resume has to speak volumes.
However, Welter has a lot more leverage than she’s utilizing; instead of waiting for the NFL to bite, she probably has a better chance of landing a head coaching job at the collegiate level. She wouldn’t be settling for less, but proving she could do what the NFL thought she couldn’t. On the other hand, she could put her master’s and Ph.D degrees to use and travel to high school and college programs, as well as professional organizations to personally counsel athletes to ensure mental stability. There are many people who need psychological help but since Welter has a background in sports, she has the credibility to connect with athletes.
Furthermore, Welter could push to be a fifth woman hired to not only help shape NFL domestic violence policies, but to spearhead them. After all, we haven’t heard much – if anything – from Anna Isaacson, Lisa Friel, Jane Randel and Rita Smith since they were hired in late 2014 following the breakout of the Ray Rice domestic violence case (usatoday.com). The league has had numerous domestic violence and assault cases since i.e. Greg Hardy, Josh Brown. It seems the NFL is more concerned with saving face than actually making improvements.
On the flip side, Welter spent most of 2016 traveling to speak on panels and making media appearances to discuss women in football; the governor of Montana even asked her to speak on equal pay for women (espn.com). But, when we think about the number of athletes that come from troubled backgrounds, struggle with drug addiction and domestic violence and don’t have any identity outside of the sports they play, there’s a high demand for psychological counseling and life coaching for athletes. Moreover, it’s vital athletes have a healthy mental state while they’re active in their sports because they’ll have a better chance of maintaining that stability after the conclusion of their playing days.
In January 2017, Northwestern women’s basketball player Jordan Hankins was found dead in her dorm room. Her death was ruled a suicide… she was 19 years old. I believe if someone had fed into her and spoken life into her, she’d still be with us today. There are many other Jordan Hankins facing the same struggles as I write this article and they need an outlet. Welter can’t reach every one by herself, but she can use her platform to become a catalyst to help save lives. If professional organizations and the media can get past women being today’s headlines just to become yesterday’s news, the world can start better utilizing the unique skills women have to offer in every industry.