Female owners encourage young women to pursue football path

It took Sheila Ford Hamp about one second to respond when asked about the potential for women in key roles in the NFL.

“The sky is the limit for anything females want to do,” said Hamp, the principal owner of the Detroit Lions.

Echoing that statement was Dee Haslam, the Cleveland Browns’ co-owner:

“We’re seeing more and more women that love the sport and who want a career in sports. The door has swung wide open and I am so excited. I look forward to the moment when we don’t have to talk about how we get the door open for women and people of color, that the door is wide open.”

Those words were embraced by the 40 young women — and potential pro football employees — attending the league’s fifth annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum late last month. Although it was held virtually for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the forum’s message came through loud and clear.

No more so than when listening to Hamp, who took over running the Lions before last season from her mother, Martha Ford, and Haslam, who owns the Browns with her husband, Jimmy.

Hamp related a telling story about women’s opportunities decades ago.

“When I graduated from college all I wanted to do was go work for the NFL. I loved football and grew up with it,” she said. “I actually knew the commissioner, Pete Rozelle. My dad had taken me to league meetings and I had an opportunity to sit next to him at dinner and we kind of became friends and he was impressed about how much a girl new about football.

“When I graduated, I went to see him, and he really tried and he liked me, but he couldn’t think of one thing a woman could do in the NFL.”

Cleveland Browns co-owner Dee Haslam before the team’s NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Cleveland Photo: AP Photo/Ron Schwane

That, of course, was decades ago. Now, as Haslam emphasized, there are women making impacts at every level of the league — from interns to scouts to coaches to aides to trainers to the executive office to the ownership suites. Indeed, Super Bowl winner Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco also either have female owners or women making key decisions at the highest team levels.

The league office has a similar makeup at every step of the ladder.

“The mountain of women in the room now who are ownership, it continues to grow and really is exciting,” Haslam said. “There are some young women in the room, which is fantastic.

“As more and more women are out there and doing the job at such a competent level, it is just going to continue to grow. Just getting your foot in the door, especially in the NFL, is what you need to start out doing. Whatever job comes your way, do it better than anybody in the room, and other opportunities will come your way.”

Hamp noted how the lines of communications need to be open regardless of the job or the people involved. As an example, she noticed that the Lions didn’t have a changing room for some women on the football staff. She quickly fixed that.

“It seems little, but it is huge,” Hamp said. “It means `you are important to us.′

“You have got to have an organization that people can speak up, that they can give you ideas and not be afraid to speak up. Listen to our employees and realize we are all in this together and all want to make this thing work.”

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