For women working in football, it’s a challenge and a calling

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Kalleigh Burke was in sixth grade when she had an epiphany. She played tag with her younger cousin in the backyard after watching YouTube videos and telling him she could help him with soccer practice. As she practiced, she found, “I really enjoy doing it.”

About 10 years later, Burke became a student senior manager of Notre Dame Football, where she was primarily responsible for working with the defensive line. During training, she set up drills and filled in for the scout team in out-of-contact situations. Outside of practice, Burke handled gear and equipment. On game days she was the ball person or assisted with signal cards.

“Between that and school, I’m pretty busy,” said Burke, who majored in finance and Spanish before graduating last spring.

One of Kalleigh Burke’s primary duties at Notre Dame was handling gear and gear (c/o Kalleigh Burke)

Amid the NFL’s free agency excitement this past March (and just a day after Tom Brady announced he would be returning to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Burke was one of 45 women to attend the NFL’s sixth annual Women’s Career in Football Forum hosted by Sam RapportSenior Director of Diversity & Inclusion of the NFL.

This year’s forum was held virtually and brought together women across the country – 64% of whom were black women – with leaders in professional football.

Over the course of two days, attendees took part in a series of panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions. Among the speakers was the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Jane Skinner Goodellas well as three club owners, eight head coaches and seven general managers.

Most of the women invited work in entry-level positions in football. The goal of the forum is to create a pipeline for women who want to work in the NFL so that one day there can be more women on the sidelines and in front office positions.

According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), women made up about 38.8% of the NFL league’s office positions, 25.3% of teams’ senior managers and 1.5% of team assistant coaches last season out.

While the forum acts as an important stepping stone, the NFL continues to work to create a safe and respectful work environment across the league. In early April, six state attorneys general wrote to Commissioner Goodell expressing concern about the treatment of female employees at the league, including its 32 member clubs. Owner of the Washington Commanders in late July Dan Snyder Testified before a congressional committee investigating the team’s history of workplace misconduct. Additionally, Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson was banned for 11 games and fined $5 million after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct at massage appointments.

Since its inception in 2017, the forum has secured over 200 opportunities for women in NFL and college football, according to the NFL. 23 teams hired directly from the program. And last season, NFL teams had 12 female coaches, an all-time high. But the majority of the league’s 32 teams still have no women on their coaching staff.

A record 15 women are in NFL coaching positions this season (six in coaching roles for the entire season). Twelve of the 15 attended the forum.

Women serving as NFL coaches this season:

  • Angela Bakeroffensive assistant for the New York Giants
  • Callie BrownsonCleveland Brown’s Chief of Staff/Assistant WR Coach
  • Maral JavadifarStrength and Conditioning Coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Jennifer KingAssistant to the Washington Commanders running backs
  • Autumn LockwoodPhiladelphia Eagles Strength and Conditioning Seasonal Associate
  • Lori GrasshopperDefense assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Kaelyn BuskeyStrength and Conditioning Intern for the Baltimore Ravens
  • Joan CantoneseFellow of the Atlanta Falcons
  • Ashley CornwallMate of the Tennessee Titans
  • Isabel DiazFellow of the Washington Commanders
  • Mickey GraceFellow of the Atlanta Falcons
  • Lisa HortonCleveland Brown’s companion
  • Connor Jo LewisBoy of the Baltimore Ravens
  • Sam MulletBuffalo Bills colleague
  • Amanda Rullermate of the Seattle Seahawks

For these women, working in football is not about numbers; it is a calling. Any woman who wants to work on the sidelines or in a front office has a passion for the game and a village of people to support her in finding her place in it.

Paving the way for women in the NFL

When Camille Wilson attended the Women’s Career in Football Forum in March, was a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central University, and a graduate assistant in student-athlete development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she pursued a master’s degree in sports administration. Since the forum, Wilson has accepted a position as Football Operations and Team Logistics Analyst for the Houston Texans.

She’s also a self-proclaimed “busy person.”

“That’s me in a nutshell. I’ve always been someone who likes to take on a lot and likes to be busy because when I’m not busy I just can’t think.”

Camille Wilson worked as a football operations assistant at North Carolina Central University, where she helped student athletes navigate their lives on and off the field. (c/o Camille Wilson)

Wilson grew up as a competitive swimmer, tennis player and track and field athlete. As a student at Agnes Scott College, Wilson said she had trouble understanding her identity beyond athletics. Now at the age of 26, Wilson enjoys helping athletes discover who they are outside and inside their sport.

However, long before Wilson discovered her passion, she knew she wanted to work in football.

“You know that when you were in middle school and high school on a Friday night, you were supposed to go out to dinner with your friends and then go to the high school game,” Wilson explains. “I would always go. However, when my friends were outside in the stands and cheering, I was probably sitting two rows down and just staring at the game because I just really, really loved the game. That was all I was interested in.”

At their swim meet-ups, Wilson could be found in the corner on her phone watching soccer.

“It was just fascinating for me to see a team working together and to see the camaraderie between so many different individuals,” says Wilson. “That’s what I wanted to do, just watch and learn and understand. I will continue to do that.”

From the sidelines at the University of Michigan to the Minnesota Vikings

Milan Burgess Played sports long before she knew she wanted to work there.

Burgess grew up as an elite gymnast and began the sport when she was just two years old. Unfortunately, Burgess had to retire from the sport at age 17 for medical reasons due to a cruciate ligament tear. But she credits it all to gymnastics and says she got where she is today because she refused to give up.

“I have so many big goals and I think that’s a testament to my sporting background,” Burgess said. “It was never enough for me just to win a medal. I always thought of what was next.”

Burgess’s love of sports came from her family. Her grandfather played professional baseball and her father played soccer at the University of Michigan — the same school that her mother, sister, and Milan herself eventually attended. Because of her upbringing and athletic background, sports always felt like an inevitable part of Burgess’ future.

Burgess, now 25, is the team operations coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, the first woman in team history to hold a full-time position on team operations. Though Burgess has many goals, she says her biggest is to be the general manager of an NFL team.

Milan Burgess is the team operations coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. (c/o Milan Burgess)

friday night lights

As for Burke, her love of football stays connected to family. She hails from a small Illinois town called Murrayville, which is home to about 500 people. Her father was a Junior Football League coach when she was a child and her brother and cousin play soccer.

“Small-town football is really cool,” says Burke. “Especially at the high school level because you have a whole community that’s coming together and cheering it on. And for many of these people, this is the most exciting time of the week.

“I think seeing how football can really bring people together was what initially made me fall in love with it.”

Because of her role in Notre Dame, Burke was able to invite her family to Notre Dame Stadium for games. Her father and brother attended almost every game last season. On Seniors’ Day, Burke invited her grandparents over. Her grandma only ever went to high school games.

“I’m blessed to be able to share this experience with some of the people at home while representing them,” Burke said.

After graduating from Notre Dame this spring, Burke accepted a position as a defense training assistant at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she will return to the sidelines this fall.

Breaking barriers in the NFL

The goals of the women who took part in the forum are different. Burke wants to be a head coach, Wilson wants to be head of soccer, and Burgess wants to be a GM. But they all share the desire for more women in football.

“It’s been amazing to be around women who have the same like-minded goals, who are motivated and have the passion that I have,” Burke said. “Ultimately the greatest [of the Forum] was about 45 other women who were super motivated, wanted to be in football and were able to make some connections there.

“Everyone crunches no matter what your title, no matter who you are,” Wilson said. “I think the 44 other women that I’ve gotten to know a little bit better are so excited about our future because I know our future is going to be so bright.”

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