Football operations symposium for women just a start

PHOENIX (AP) If you can help a team succeed, there is a place for you.

That was among the many messages shared at the NFL's women's career development program during the owners' meetings this week.

Dozens of women from across the NFL, along with several working at universities, attended the symposium at which they learned about football administration, operations, coaching and scouting. They went to presentations, panel discussions, breakout sessions and experienced networking opportunities with club and league executives.

No press coverage. No social media entries about the discussions.

Just honest, in-depth sharing of knowledge, advice, even war stories.

''No event in the clubs' year brings this all together in football operations,'' says Sam Rapoport, director of football development and a key assistant to Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of football operations. ''We created a bond with the two days in this setting because there was a trust that everything we were sharing was only between the people attending.

''There was so much football acumen that you can't get elsewhere,'' he said.

Indeed, along with a group of highly accomplished women currently or previously in the NFL - from Bengals executive VP Katie Blackburn to former league executive Dawn Aponte to Falcons coaching intern Katie Sowers, a former player and now a scout for the team - speakers included Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill, Chargers football operations chief John Spanos, and Atlanta assistant general manager Scott Pioli.

To Pioli, the seminars were enlightening for their depth of frankness.

''From the dynamics to the dysfunctions, on whatever level,'' he says, ''Samantha created an environment where everyone was comfortable expressing themselves. We made it a safe place to ask anything, to talk about any issues. We heard stories very similar to what we hear from the men about making breakthroughs, about the challenges everyone faces. We gave our own vulnerabilities and talked about our own mistakes.''

Pioli has been fortunate to work for three organizations - New England, Kansas City and now Atlanta - that have been leaders in the push for diversity in the NFL.

''You find time if you want to care,'' he says, adding of football operations, ''this is not a gender-specific business.''

Indeed, Kate Kost is the manager of football operations for the Rams. She has been in that department for 11 years and helped oversee the team's relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles last year. That included traveling from Missouri on a Monday to California and staying through Friday every week until the final move in March. She helped with site visits for the Rams' football facility, business offices, finding a home hotel during the season, along with meeting with vendors.

Even with so much experience, some of it unique for her position, the symposium was extremely educational for Kost.

''I was really looking forward to meeting the other participants and learning everyone's path they took to get where they are today,'' says Kost, who also does scouting work. ''It was uplifting to see the amount of women in that room that had stories similar to mine, and to gain this network of women in the NFL is invaluable to me.

''The symposium made me appreciate my opportunity to work for the `shield' even more than I did before, not that I take it for granted,'' Kost added. ''But it made me realize that there are only 32 positions out there like mine, most of them held by males. I realized I was accomplishing the dream I had to work for the NFL growing up.''

That's precisely what Rapoport envisioned for this event, something she hopes to stage often in the future.

''There's a lot of interest around the combine,'' she says, adding ''this could be bigger than just football. It helps the cause to have other leagues involved and broadens the picture.''

Rapoport also made sure to include in Phoenix women working in college sports. Callie Seidman, the assistant director of football operations at Stanford, has a somewhat different set of challenges than her counterparts in the pros. So taking part in the program was a chance to gather info she could use back at Palo Alto - and to share procedures she uses with the Cardinal.

''I was hoping to learn from some of the best in the business about the football operations side of NFL clubs and the league office,'' she says. ''It was a tremendous experience to be surrounded by successful women in football, who are like-minded and share similar experiences, most being the only female on the club.''

Both Kost and Seidman believe this is only the beginning. In fact, to them it's essential that such dialogues continue.

''There is something to be said about being a part of a team and the feeling you get after a win,'' Kost says. ''To feel like you were a part of making it happen. Maybe not by making plays on the field, but doing your job so the players and coaches can do theirs.''

Seidman is looking forward to further advancement for women in football and in the sport in general. It should be a natural progression, she notes.

''I think that when organizations realize they are eliminating 50 percent of the pool by not hiring highly qualified women into roles,'' she says ''they will see how much of a disadvantage it is.''

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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