In the slow burn days of NFL training camp there isn’t much non-Geno Smith news to go around. Injuries flare up, some minor trades are completed, rosters are whittled down, and fans half-heartedly pay attention in hopes of catching a sleeper fantasy pick. But on July 27, the Arizona Cardinals broke through to the mainstream side of the news when they announced the hiring of coaching intern Jen Weltner. Weltner’s hire, though an internship (and currently) only through the preseason, makes her the first woman coach in the NFL. Bruce Arians, head coach of the Cardinals, brought in Weltner with an opportunity to be the first in the NFL, but it’s not the first time Weltner has been a first at this.
The NFL has a problem with women. Whether it’s indecipherable punishments for players caught in domestic abuse, where you can receive a harsher punishment for smoking weed than you can hitting your girlfriend, or the pedantic outreach program to add female fans, the daily drubbing the league gets for it’s tone-deaf nature of over half the population deserves whatever sniping it receives.
A hire like Jen Weltner could be viewed by the more cynical followers of the sport that this was simply a move to show that the NFL is more progressive than its history would imply. It’s a low-risk hire, done during a point in the year when attention for the league is pretty low. The only thing stopping that narrative is the credentials of Weltner.
Playing rugby in college, Weltner went on the pursue a Masters in Sport Psychology from Boston College and later a PhD in Psychology from Capella University. Not content to just use her brain to slide into coaching, Weltner played in numerous professional and semi-professional women’s football leagues. And we’re not talking the Lingerie League either. Weltner earned two gold medals playing for Team USA in Women’s Football for the International Federation of American Football’s Women’s World Championship.
After that, she was added to the Texas Revolution as the first non-kicker female member of a professional sports team. While her time in the indoor league was fleeting, she played in the pre-season, but spent most of the year on the practice squad. The owner, Tommy Benizio, who initially brought her in for the spectacle, turned around and offered her a coaching job.
She went from field to sideline and coached the Revolution for a season before getting the call from Bruce Arians. Arians has repeated the cry that the hire isn’t a gimmick, saying that Weltner has “the background and experience we were looking for, as a player and a coach.”
The problem is a pioneer is a lonely figure. There is no fraternity to share your stories and anxieties, and a league desperate for off-field narrative that is not driven by arrests, violence and deflated balls could put the narrative squarely on Weltner’s shoulders.
It appears she has the full support of Arians and the Cardinals organization, tucked away in Arizona. The team is middling, but not rife with turnover, dysfunction and issues. Her PhD thesis was an analysis of the Wonderlic test, which is used to determine personality types that work best on a team, which is an attractive mind to bring to the table regardless of gender.
And in the larger sense, she isn’t totally alone. Beck Hammon went from playing to an assistant coaching position in the vaulted San Antonio Spurs organization, even coaching their Summer League team to the Summer League Championship. The Iowa Energy, the D League affiliate of the Memphis Grizzlies promoted Nicki Gross to assistant coach, making her the lone female coach of the NBA D League. Two days later, the Sacramento Kings made Hall of Fame player Nancy Lieberman (herself a former D League coach) an assistant coach.
Slowly the tide is turning and doors that were never thought to be open are now creaking with the push of female coaches wanting to get inside. Whether the NFL—and more explicitly, the culture surrounding it—is as ready for it as much as Welter is has yet to be determined.