Are cracks beginning to show in the NFL's glass ceiling? On Monday, it was announced that the Arizona Cardinals have hired Dr. Jen Welter as a coaching intern for the team's 2015 training camp and preseason.
Welter, who is believed to be the first female in NFL history hired in any sort of coaching position, joins the Cardinals after 14 years of pro football experience, including a stint as a linebackers and special teams coach with the Texas Revolution of the Indoor Football League. In 2014, she played running back and was on the special teams squad for the Revolution, becoming the first female to play as a non-kicker for a men's pro team. Welter, 37, holds a master's degree in sports psychology and a PhD in psychology. She is, if anything, overqualified to be an intern.
It's no big surprise that the Cardinals are responsible for breaking the gender barrier. Earlier this year, head coach Bruce Arians, one of the NFL's most forward-thinking minds, has previously made clear his belief that women could make it to the sidelines in the NFL sooner rather than later.
"When are we going to have female coaches?" Arians said at the March owners meetings. "The minute they can prove they can make a player better, they'll be hired."
Apparently, Welter's resume and experience have convinced Arians of her coaching acumen.
"I really believe [Welter will] have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her," Arians said Monday.
Women, long shut out of the four major North American sports leagues, have made significant strides in recent years. The NBA's Summer League became a cause célèbre for San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, who has steadily gained traction as a viable head coaching candidate after guiding her squad to a Summer League title. While a myriad of talented female coaches preceded her without securing work in the men's game, Hammon overcame many barriers due in part to Spurs headman Gregg Popovich, whose reputation and coaching tree silence even the harshest skeptics.
San Antonio provides a working model for the Cardinals to follow. Like Popovich, Arians commands respect from peers throughout the league. In just two years in Arizona, his coaching tree has already sprouted with former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles moving on to fill the New York Jets' vacant head coach position. If Arians says that Welter can enhance the Cardinals' roster and coaching staff, the NFL will take notice.
And Welter has support beyond her fellow coaches. Cardinals star cornerback Patrick Peterson expressed his support for her hiring on Twitter Monday evening.
Still, what will ultimately decide Welter's future in the NFL is her ability to develop and give direction to football players.
In Arizona, Welter assumes a similar role to the one she held with the Revolution, working with Arizona's inside linebackers. Outside of free agent additions Sean Weatherspoon and Darryl Sharpton, none of her charges have more than two seasons of NFL experience under their belts. This group should provide an excellent showcase for her potential in the NFL.
But given the nature of this particular coaching position, Welter's hiring could be brief in 2015. Teams often do not retain their intern coaches after their original runs conclude, and Welter's time in Arizona may only last until the start of the regular season, regardless of how well she performs.
However, Welter appears to have a genuine opportunity to impress her peers and begin building a career as an NFL coach, a feat that seemed unattainable for women not long ago.