A Washington coach reaches a first for Black women in the NFL
By Victor Mather and Ben Shpigel
The Washington Football Team promoted Jennifer King to assistant running backs coach Tuesday, making her the first Black woman to become a full-time coach in the NFL.
King’s promotion accentuates the importance the Washington franchise has placed on diversifying after a tumultuous year in which its longtime logo and nickname, widely perceived as racist, were dropped. The move also comes as the NFL faces increasing scrutiny because of its paucity of Black head coaches.
King, 36, was a coaching intern with the team this past season and previously served as an intern with the Carolina Panthers and as an offensive assistant at Dartmouth College.
“She earned this opportunity with hard work,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. “The sky truly is the limit for her.”
The number of female coaches in the NFL has grown, slowly but steadily, over the past five seasons, with eight women on staffs in 2020. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which tracks racial and gender demographics of coaches in five professional sports leagues, the NFL trails only the NBA, which has nine female assistants.
Yet while about 70% of NFL players are Black, only two of the current head coaches are, and just four — including Rivera — are people of color, according to the league’s measure of diversity.
Of the seven head coaching jobs that became available in the past four months, only one has been filled by a nonwhite candidate: the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, who is a Muslim Arab American. The Houston Texans’ head coaching position is still open.
Three minority candidates were hired as general managers in the past two weeks — Terry Fontenot in Atlanta, Brad Holmes in Detroit and Martin Mayhew in Washington — swelling the leaguewide total to five. The general manager hirings are significant because their roles enable them to hire, and recommend, more people of color to join their organizations. But they are less visible than coaches.
In most instances, the pipeline to NFL coaching and scouting positions is stocked with men who have played college football, diminishing chances for women interested in pursuing careers in professional football. But in recent years, the league has made stronger efforts to enhance opportunities for women, particularly those of color.
It established the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, an annual event held in conjunction with the league’s scouting combine that since 2017 has given women with entry-level roles in college programs a chance to learn from, and network with, NFL general managers, coaches and executives. At last February’s session, 26 of the league’s 32 teams participated, and Samantha Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity and inclusion, said that with a virtual format next month, she is hoping for full representation.
In 2019, 55% of the participants at the forum were women of color. Among all the women who attended the most recent gathering, in February, 15 were hired for full-time positions or internships, either in the NFL or for a college program, for the 2020 season, bringing the total to 118 such jobs since the forum’s inception.
“People that are marginalized or disenfranchised, if you give them a shot, an opportunity to have a conversation with someone who can potentially hire them, that’s how they land on the short list,” Rapoport said.
In 2015, Jen Welter became the first woman added to an NFL staff, as an assistant coaching intern with the Arizona Cardinals. Kathryn Smith became the first woman to hold a full-time assistant coaching position the following year, when she was named special teams quality control coach under Rex Ryan with the Buffalo Bills, and after the 2019 season Katie Sowers, who worked mostly with the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receivers, became the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl.
(Sowers, after four seasons with San Francisco, announced a few weeks ago that she would not return in 2021.)
Another breakthrough came in November, when Callie Brownson of the Cleveland Browns was elevated to tight ends coach on a brief interim basis, becoming the highest-ranking female coach in league history.
“What we’re hoping for is normalization,” Rapoport said, adding: “We’re not looking for firsts. We’re not putting on a schedule for the first female head coach or the first female general manager. That’s not our focus. Our focus is really the ubiquity of women in football.”
King, like many of the women who have coached in the NFL, has played football and other sports. She was on the basketball and softball teams at Guilford College from 2002 to 2006 and was the head basketball coach at Johnson & Wales University Charlotte from 2016 to 2018. King has also played in the Women’s Football Alliance with the Carolina Phoenix, the New York Sharks and the D.C. Divas.
“The way she’s worked with the guys, she’s just coach King to us,” Randy Jordan, Washington’s running backs coach, told The Washington Post in December. “Her input throughout the game, there are things I may not see, and she’ll point it out to me.
“Her input is very, very important not only to me,” he continued, “but to the entire staff. She’s been doing a heck of a job.”
Amid an organizational overhaul led by Rivera, the Washington Football Team has hired people of color for significant roles over the past 13 months. The team announced last week that Mayhew, who is Black, would become its general manager, filling a position that has been vacant since 2016. In September, the team added Jason Wright, the first Black team president in the NFL, to its front office.