DAFF president Nadia Panzio on mission to change football culture

The old saying goes don’t judge a book by its cover. Nadia Panzio hopes a few people have learned that lesson. The president of the Danish American Football Federation still remembers vividly the online response when her election was announced last year.

“I will tell you there were some very mean comments. People were saying ‘what is she doing here’, ‘what is she supposed to do in sports’, ‘she’s just a girl’ and ‘she’s a cheerleader what does that have to do with football’,” Panzio recounts. “Thankfully there was a lot of people supporting me, otherwise I would not have been elected.”

A lot has changed in a year. Panzio has championed an ambitious culture change within Danish American football and done so while juggling the coronavirus pandemic. The early criticism did little to drag her down.

“The mean comments hit me hard but it also drove me to say ‘ I’m going to show you’,” she says. “Just because I’m a women doesn’t mean I can’t do things for the federation.”

Do things she has. While most of North America looks on enviously, the Danish National League has become the second football league in the world to begin game-play. Panzio believes that’s a credit to the people around her at DAFF.

“Our general manager [Lars Carlsen] has been very proactive. When all this started there was a lot of phone calls and a lot of meetings discussing if we should close down and cancel games and championships. And we did,” Panzio explains. “We closed down the whole federation a week before the country shut down.”

That proactive approach kept the Danish ahead of the pandemic and DAFF membership was very understanding. Panzio marveled at how quickly the clubs adapted to online measures to keep engaged. Soon, by way of a favourable comparison with the national past time of soccer, American football was one of the first sports back on the field.

Why the success? Panzio has an explanation.

“I think its because here in Denmark, it takes a lot to shake us. We are very solid and can deal with almost anything,” she laughs.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive challenge, its just one of the hurdles the president has faced in her mission to reshape Danish American football. Originally a cheerleader, an injury ended Panzio’s days as an athlete and a move away from her local club cost her the chance to coach. Taking a role on the board was originally just a way to stay involved in the sport she loved, but soon she noticed structural problems within the organization that made her consider a presidential run.

“I started to see all the things that didn’t work the way I thought a board or a federation should. All the communication and unity was just not there,” Panzio says. “We had cheerleading, flag football and tackle football, and it was just those three sports each doing their own thing.”

She was forced to learn about the sport of football on the job and discovered a whole new world, with a foreign type of culture.

“In cheerleading we are all a family. We did everything we could to help each other and make sure other clubs could go to international competitions,” she says. “In football, the mentality was if you can’t show up for a match, I’m going to sue you. That was a whole new thing for me.”

As president, Panzio quickly identified that the level of hostility between clubs and individuals might be part of the reason that Denmark was facing declining enrolment in the sport. As president, she has made it her mission to build better relationships and mend fences by listening to everyone at the grass roots level. She had heard the common refrain that DAFF was not involved enough with individual clubs.

“People used to tell me ‘you can’t see it that way, you’ve got to look at it from my perspective’ so I’ve really tried to put myself in their place,” Panzio admits. “I had a lot of long conversation with people where we discussed what their experiences were, what they think the issues are and how we can work around it as a federation to help”

That wouldn’t have been possible without the help of general manager Lars Carlsen.

“He and I make a really good team,” Panzio says of the head of the federation’s administration. “He knows how to deal with people because he has been in the sport for 25 years.”

Even with Carlsen as conduit, some of those conversations have been challenging for Panzio as a rare young woman in a football leadership position.

“I have had conversations with people where I could feel them neglecting and dismissing me because I’m a woman, but also because I’m young. It affects people when you talk to them,” she says frankly. “I can say whatever I want, but if my colleague who is forty years older and a man says the exact same thing they will respond to it a lot better.”

It is a relic of a different time that Panzio finds is best resolved by bringing up the issue.

“I don’t think they do it on purpose, it just happens when you are young and a woman,” she explains. “If I just address it and do it in a respectful way, people respond really well to it.”

By learning the ins and outs of every level of football in the country from the key decision makers, Panzio is learning what things she can bring to the sport from her cheerleading background and vice versa. Its all a part of building a new DAFF.

“I want to change the culture around the sport here in Denmark. If we could merge our two sports together, that would be perfect,” she says. “There are so many good things in football and so many good things in cheerleading, we should be a family and learn from each other. That’s my main goal.”

Those lessons include using cheerleading’s acumen for attracting younger kids and girls to grow football enrolment. Those who resent the president’s outsider approach are missing out.

“I feel like some new blood into this crazy sport is going to benefit all of us,” Panzio says. “I don’t have the same thoughts as you do, so I’m not going to run into the same holes.”

Panzio is up for re-election next year and hopes to be involved in the federation for years to come. She believes the board and administration have combined to do some great things thus far under her leadership. She hopes the membership’s voting decision will be based on her leadership ability and not on the merits of her gender.

“Here in Denmark, the word president is related to a man. People ask me, do you want to be called president in the masculine or president in the feminine. I say it has nothing to do with me being a woman, its about my ability to lead, so lets just call it president like we always have,” Panzio explains

“If I’m not able to do something, if I’m not able to move this federation forward, then I’m not the person who is supposed to sit here.”

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.