ORLANDO –Football players of all levels traveled to Orlando in late January for a week of Pro Bowl festivities, and at least 250 of those athletes participated in USA Football's 2017 Women's World Football Games.
Female tackle football players from around the world – including Budapest, China, the United Kingdom and Australia – gathered for five days of training, skills sessions and 11-on-11 competitions. In addition to the on-field work, the players also were eligible to participate in the NFL's Women's Careers in Football Forum that took place at ESPN Wide World of Sports on Jan. 26 and 27.
The forum was the first of its kind and featured panel discussions, presentations and networking sessions aimed to educate and prepare women for positions in football operations, including coaching, officiating and scouting.
NFL Director of Football Development Samantha Rapoport – who has played flag, touch and tackle football through the years – has a heart for helping women learn more about careers in the sport they love.
"I've been involved and around this community for so long, this group of thousands of women that play and love the sport of tackle football, and they know their Xs and Os," Rapoport said. "It was just a matter of combining efforts and bringing these women into the conversation and working to inspire them."
The forum kicked off with a panel discussion that included Kim Pegula (Buffalo Bills Owner), Dawn Aponte (RSE Ventures Executive of Strategy and Development), Scott Pioli (Atlanta Falcons Assistant General Manager) and Kimberly Fields (NFL Senior Vice President of Football Operations).
Rapoport was impressed by the high energy of the audience and attentiveness of the attendees.
"I certainly had a few out-of-body moments watching that," Rapoport said. "It's been a long time planning and a long-time idea associated with this, so the reward for me was seeing how the crowd reacted to the people on stage – everyone was engaged, no one was bored.
"Everyone was looking at these panelists with wide eyes, and I think that it just shows the need for this at the league level," Rapoport added.
Panelists spoke on topics such as how they first fell in love with the sport of football, challenges they've encountered as females in a male-dominated industry, and what to expect from a career in the professional sports industry.
Fields, who previously worked with the Vikings as the Director of Civic & Business Affairs, shared her personal experiences and journey. She encouraged the participants to confirm their passion and career goals and to understand the commitment they would be making with a position in football operations.
Aponte echoed Fields' charge, saying, "It's more than just a job – it's your life."
A prominent message to the 200-plus women from all the panelists was to never compromise their personhood, their work ethic or their integrity.
Following the initial panel discussion, participants were then able to utilize an open-mic session to ask specific questions to the presenters.
All attendees of the two-day forum were entered into the league's Diverse Talent Community, an online recruitment platform that encourages quality, dynamic candidates with diverse backgrounds to join its ranks through a shared talent acquisition database.
Rapoport said the forum worked to bridge the gap for qualified women who desired to pursue career goals in football.
"I've spoken to a lot of general managers and owners about female coaches, for instance, and what does it take to be a coach? And the prerequisite at entry level, at high school or college or the pros, is the ability to communicate what you know and knowledge of football," Rapoport said. "There's no question that if these women are able to communicate the knowledge that they have, that they are as qualified as men are for the position."
According to Rapoport, the league's next goal is to connect with individual clubs to offer similar, small-scale events for local women to provide them with career information.
Rapoport emphasized the significance of the Vikings Women initiative and how the program could be a platform moving forward.
"The role I'd love to play is to come in contact with the Vikings and other clubs, discuss what we did here, and figure out how we can expand that to 32," Rapoport said. "That's really taking our vision and an event that took place here and expanding it across the country, which would be an incredible outcome."