Op-Ed: In a year riddled with barriers, women continued to break them

NFL.com celebrates Women's History Month by highlighting those who are making an impact around the league.

About a month ago, I found myself getting reacquainted with a familiar friend. The sheen of its white and brown polyester looked different in a glass case with fluorescent lighting, but the feelings it evoked remained the same. As I reflected on my football journey that day, I felt sadness and even some anger for the women who came before me and never realized their dreams. I felt immense gratitude and admiration for those who paved the way for my success. Above all else, I felt excitement and hope for the future of women in the National Football League.

I last saw that white and brown jacket during our win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in November. That day, I was given the opportunity to be interim tight ends coach, the first woman to serve as a position coach in an NFL game. Today that jacket sits in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, home to the bronze busts of hundreds of NFL legends, all men -- something that's sure to change.

Despite the trying year that was 2020, football saw women reach new heights. Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl. Down judge Sarah Thomas made history as the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl. Washington Football Team assistant Jennifer King became the first Black woman to coach full-time in the NFL. And just this month, Maia Chaka was hired as the NFL's newest official, making her the league's first Black female to hold the position.

With each passing year, a door that was once closed to women opens wider, but it didn't happen without the help of advocates and programs designed to move the league forward. Eight women coached in the NFL last season, with three of us acting as panelists during the recent NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum. The purpose of the forum is to help women build connections within the NFL and to increase the number of female coaches, scouts and front office personnel working in the league. Since its inception in 2017, more than 300 women have participated in the forum with 118 women earning job opportunities at the professional and collegiate football levels. Those numbers not only speak to the value of the program, but also show there's a place and need for women in football.

The success of women like myself is also due to those who've advocated for diversity and inclusion on our behalf. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has been changing the landscape of the game for years, hiring several women on his coaching staffs. Bills head coach Sean McDermott hired me following the forum in 2019. My current head coach, Kevin Stefanski, not only hired me, but trusted me enough to lead two position groups in regular and postseason games. I'm also fortunate to be a member of the Cleveland Browns, an organization that places value on diversity and inclusion. In 2020, we had six women, including myself, working in personnel and coaching over the course of the season. Additionally, Dee and Jimmy Haslam launched the Haslam Sports Group Diversity and Opportunity Fellowship last year. It's a program dedicated to increasing the diversity pipeline on the business side of professional sports, starting with the Browns and Columbus Crew. The program begins this summer with four fellows, two of whom are women.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the women behind the scenes who've made enormous contributions to the league. Women like Sam Rapoport, the NFL's senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, whose off-the-field work has led to the success of women like myself. And like my female colleagues in Northeast Ohio, who not only play a pivotal role in the success of the Browns, but in making our community a better place.

It goes without saying, last year was incredibly difficult. The pandemic forced us to see life in a way many of us never have before. But through it all, women broke down barriers and set new standards in a society where we are still very much underrepresented. Sarah Fuller became the first female to play in a collegiate football game for a Power Five program. Kim Ng was named the Miami Marlins general manager, the first woman to hold the position in the four major North American professional sports leagues. And Kamala Harris became the first woman, and woman of color, elected Vice President of the United States.

There are some days when it's still hard for me to believe I'm a woman coaching in the NFL. After all, it doesn't seem that long ago when I was a teenager denied the opportunity to even play high school football. I realize there are still plenty of challenges to face, barriers to break and stereotypes to overcome. However, the difference between now and just a few short years ago is that young girls can dream of playing or coaching in the NFL and those dreams no longer seem impossible.

As I stared at my white and brown jacket in Canton that day, I thought about what lies ahead for myself and other women in the NFL. While I don't know when it will happen or who she will be, I do know that a woman will find herself in Canton with a different colored jacket one day -- a gold one.

Callie Brownson is the chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns.

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