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Phoebe Schecter stands shoulder to shoulder with the Buffalo Bills.
Courtesy of Buffalo Bills | Photo illustration by Tyson Whiting

The Glass Sideline

There are plenty of people who think women are not qualified to coach men’s sports (trust us, we talked to them). But trailblazers in the industry are breaking through barriers, little by little.

She shouldn’t be there.

Because on this July morning at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York, it’s all about Buffalo Bills football. Week 1 of their 2018 training camp. The sun is shining, the Polisenni Track and Field grandstands are packed, and the gridiron is teeming with NFL players, hopefuls, coaches, and assistants. And since this is the NFL, all those players and hopefuls and coaches and assistants on the field are men. All but one.

At the 30-yard line stands Phoebe Schecter. She’s a two-time recipient of a Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a league-wide program established in 1987 that provides NFL coaching experience for minority and, more recently, female coaches. For the second straight year, the 29-year-old Connecticut native has a three-week summer coaching internship with the Bills. It’s a gig that will hopefully one day lead to her dream job: Coaching full time. “I want football to be a part of my life 24/7,” she says.

Schecter’s doing her best to fit in amongst that sea of men. She definitely dresses the part of a Bills coach. She’s got the gray, long sleeve Bills shirt, the black gym shorts, the sneakers, and the Oakley shades. She acts the part as well. As the tight ends run through 10-yard out routes, Schecter observes and absorbs every second of every play, all the while grabbing loose footballs, double-checking the practice script, and standing shoulder to shoulder with tight end coach Rob Boras and assistant Marc Lubick.

As for looking the part, that’s where it becomes a tough sell. There’s the 5’4 frame and the long blonde hair. Compared to all these other Bills coaches with their shaved heads and beards and goatees and scowls, guys who look like they’ve been barking orders since they stepped out of the womb, Schecter doesn’t exactly blend in. In fact, a woman — any woman — on the football field makes many people downright uncomfortable. People including iconic New York sports talk radio host Mike Francesa, who said he considers the thought of women coaching men in the pros to be ludicrous.

“Not everybody is attuned or designed to do every single job,” said Francesa in 2017. “And as we move forward there’s no saying that everybody has to be able to do every single job. Some are better for some people, that’s all. That’s not being chauvinistic. That’s not being stone-aged. That’s just being reasonable. I’m just looking at this with some modicum of common sense.”

But this is the 21st century. Women like Safra Catz, Mary Barra, and Marillyn Hewson are running Fortune 500 companies. Twenty percent of Congress is female. As of 2013, there were 69 women serving as a general or an admiral in the United States Armed Forces, 39 women have served as U.S. governors, and this past August the Marine Corps named its first female platoon commander. Not to mention that little 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president.

While it’s true that women have been making significant strides in many industries, astoundingly little progress has been made in the realm of coaching men’s sports.

“Diversity is valued in the marketplace,” says Nicole LaVoi, Co-Director at The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Yet sports are behind the times.” That’s a polite way of saying men’s pro sports appear to be, despite Francesa’s denial, stuck in the Stone Age. Of the roughly 2,600 coaches employed by the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, and MLB (this includes minor league affiliates), the number of women coaching isn’t a Congress-like 20 percent. It’s not even one percent. Of that 2,600, the total number of female coaches is six.

Which, for those who can’t do that math off the top of your head, is precisely 0.23 percent.

This isn’t a recent downward trend, nor is it a historical aberration. Quite the opposite. In fact, 2018 could be described as a female coaching renaissance because in the 445 combined years that those five pro sports leagues have been around, there have only been a total of 10 female coaches.

These stats prompt some to raise the question: Can women coach men? Well the answer is simple.

Yes. Of course.

If a woman is capable of serving on the Supreme Court, then a woman sure as hell is capable of coaching the Daytona Tortugas, the Cincinnati Reds’ A-ball team. So the real question here isn’t about ability, it’s about access. Why, in the 21st century, aren’t more women coaching men?

The next morning, Schecter chows down on an omelet at a restaurant in downtown East Rochester. It’s some rare time away from the St. John Fisher campus. Training camp days — on-field practices, team meetings, breaking down film, compiling play scripts — can run upwards of 15 hours. But Schecter can’t get enough. She can’t stop gushing about the Bills. How on that first day last July, she couldn’t wipe the smile off of her face. How for the entire internship, then-defensive backs coach Gill Byrd answered any questions she had, no matter how basic. How this season she’s much more confident. How some of the DBs she worked with last year joked, “Aw, you’re a traitor because you’re going to the offense.” How she’s feeling like, well, one of the guys.

Still, her internship is no cakewalk. “These guys have grown up their whole lives in a locker room culture,” explains Schecter. “They know the language. Obviously it’s going to be a lot harder for me at times. I’m coming in with less than a quarter of their experience.”

And she’s well aware she’s got a monumental hill to climb because when athletes, executives, and experts talk about what it takes to be a coach in the pros, that one word comes up more than any other. Experience. Playing the game and living the life.

The most obvious benefit of experience is education. The more an athlete plays, the more that athlete learns.

“The amount of intricacies of every sport, especially as you get at higher and higher levels, is lost on someone who’s not around it every day sitting in a room watching video or on the field for 12 years through high school and college and beyond,” explains former NFL wide receiver Drew Bennett.

During eight years with the Titans and Rams, Bennett earned a reputation as a thinking man’s player, later becoming an analyst on ESPN’s First Take. “The difference between college and pros? Eighty percent of your knowledge is from experience, the other 20 from watching film or being in the classroom,” he says. Having stalk blocked against a soft press or blitzed a pick and roll doesn’t guarantee that someone can teach others to do those things. But it definitely helps. “Very few people can dive into those details not having experienced it,” adds Bennett.

Of course, wearing the uniform isn’t just about understanding the game. It’s about understanding the players. Their struggles, fears, and failure. Because at the end of the day — except for a rarified few — a career in pro sports is far more about struggle than success. “Experience leads to bonding, to relating,“ explains Michael Carter-Williams, a six-year NBA veteran recently acquired by the Houston Rockets. “As an athlete you know they understand you.”

Just look at Becky Hammon. In 2014 she was hired by the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach — the first such woman in NBA history. She notched 16 seasons in the WNBA, was a six-time all-star, fourth all-time in assists, and in 2011 she was voted as one of the top 15 players in league history. “I know what it’s like to play a back-to-back, what it’s like to be tired and not want to come to work today,” Hammon says. “I can relate to injuries, sitting on the bench or being an all-star and the captain. I can relate to it all because I’ve been in every situation.”

Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs coaches the team during a game.
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images | Photo illustrations by Tyson Whiting

Another benefit of suiting up? The cred factor. Take it from Jen Welter, another pioneer. For more than a dozen years she was the Khalil Mack of women’s tackle football, and in 2014 she even graduated to running back for the Texas Revolution, a men’s team in the Champions Indoor Football league. The following year she made history as the first-ever woman to earn an NFL coaching internship, compliments of the Bill Walsh NFL Fellowship. “Playing experience is a big deal,” says Welter, who served as a preseason intern with the Arizona Cardinals. “There’s no way it would have worked if those guys hadn’t been able to check out my game film. They said, ‘Jen I checked out your highlight reel. You were a beast.’”

As she polishes off her second cup of coffee, Schecter admits her time on the turf isn’t exactly extensive. The Connecticut native didn’t play American football until she moved to England. In February 2013, eager to meet new friends in the UK, she answered a Facebook post advertising open tryouts for tackle football in Manchester. “They put me at quarterback because I was American,” laughs Schecter. “Then I moved to linebacker and discovered a thirst for contact.”

That October she debuted on the newly formed Great Britain’s Women’s American Football team with a 27-10 victory over Sweden. Over the next five years, the 5’4 linebacker played for the national club, the Birmingham Lions Women’s team, and the Staffordshire Surge — a men’s team. But football in the UK means one sport and one sport only: soccer. The American version is still marginalized, and women’s football even more so. There’s not a lot of it and Schecter guesses she’s only played in 30 some-odd games.

And even at the highest levels, women’s tackle football is, to be perfectly honest, lacking. Not lacking effort, mind you. Or enthusiasm. Find some clips on YouTube and look for yourself — most games lack a skill level found even in high school games. It’s not because these women don’t love playing. It’s because unlike their male counterparts, they didn’t grow up playing, with the majority taking up football in their 20s.

So yeah, Schecter’s experience is pretty thin. But let’s say she’d grown up dying to get on the gridiron in order to be the next Bill Parcells one day. It would have been nearly impossible. Today, of the 225,000 participants in Pop Warner youth football, only about 1,100 (0.49 percent) of those are female. “At 12-13, girls aren’t playing football,” explains Schecter. “They’re not connected to the game.”

Of course, not all sports lack that connection. Women can play tennis, hockey, soccer, and basketball from the time they are toddlers to the pro ranks. It’s no surprise that five of the six women currently coaching in men’s pro sports are affiliated with the NBA. But the number of baseball and football teams for girls in high school and college? Zero.

Experience is invaluable. But that said, it’s not an unbreakable rule. “I don’t subscribe to the theory that you had to have done it to be an expert,” says Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch. He batted a paltry .219 in 350 games at the major league level but then went on to win the 2017 World Series in only his fifth year as a manager. “Expertise in a sport can come a lot of different ways.”

Example A is a guy like Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock. He’s the third-winningest coach in NHL history and didn’t lace up his skates until past his teens. Or Todd Haley, the former head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. He played golf in high school and college. There have been hundreds of pro coaches — some Hall of Famers — who had little to no playing time. But what they lacked in direct experience they made up for with commitment and dedication. They started at the bottom and worked their way to the top. “You’ve got to earn your stripes,” says former NFL coach Rex Ryan, who began his career as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky University. “You can’t bypass the steps.”

Ryan applied this logic when, in 2016, he made Kathryn Smith the first full-time female coach in NFL history. In 2003, as a freshman at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Smith landed an internship with the Jets. After graduation, the team hired her as a full-time player personnel assistant. Ryan eventually named Smith his own assistant and he was so impressed that when he was named Buffalo Bills head coach, he brought her with him. “I never looked at it as making history,” says Ryan. “She worked her way up to quality control coach. That means shit jobs, very time-consuming. She exceeded expectations and was respected by all the players.”

Schecter didn’t grow up around the game, and unlike Smith, she hasn’t spent a dozen years grinding her way through the ranks. Her coaching quest started late in life. She knows she’s trying to cram 20-plus years of playing, coaching, and following football — basically what every other coach on the Bills has done — into a five-year period. And since 2013 she’s been busting her butt every possible day to do just that. On top of playing football in the UK, she began coaching. First it was the youth team Manchester Titans in 2016. Next it was the Staffordshire Surge. She took her Level 1 and 2 coaching courses with the British American Football Association. Then came the internships; the University of La Verne (2016), the Buffalo Bills (2017), Bryant University (2017), Stanford University (2018), and back to the Bills (2018). It’s all part of the process. One, like Ryan said, without shortcuts.

Mastering the intricacies of the game takes time. A long time. But Schecter also understands that her internships serve another invaluable purpose: networking. Getting a coaching job isn’t simply about the Xs and Os. It’s about personality and temperament and respect, because coaching staffs are small teams unto themselves. Chemistry is vital.

“When you’ve played alongside people, it helps them to get to know you,” says Kim Ng, senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB. In 1990, Ng landed her own internship with the Chicago White Sox. Eight years later she was named assistant general manager of the Yankees and would eventually be named vice president and assistant GM of the Dodgers. “They get to know your skills, acuity, your substance of knowledge. They’ll vouch for you.”

Roaming the sidelines of the St. John Fisher College gridiron is a woman well-versed in the ways of networking within professional sports. “Our assistant GM, Joe Schoen, will hopefully be a GM one day,” says Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula. In 2014, the 49-year-old and her husband Terry forked over $1.4 billion for the Bills. Today the club is one of eight NFL teams that have women holding a primary ownership stake, and Pegula has built a reputation as a savvy, proactive boss. “He’ll know Phoebe. Or he’ll recommend her if some other team from college or the pros calls to inquire about her.”

Schecter learned these processes firsthand. As she was flying home from her stint with the Bills in the summer of 2018, James Perry, the head football coach at Bryant University, sent her an e-mail. A job offer in the form of “a very unpaid internship,” jokes Schecter. During her time with Buffalo, Schecter had gotten to know Jim Salgado, a defensive assistant. He liked what he saw in her so he put in a call to Perry, with whom he’d coached at Princeton University. Schecter barely had time to pack before she was jetting to Rhode Island, where she spent the next five months interning with the Bryant Bulldogs’ offense. Schecter is well aware that the more opportunities she accepts, the more likely she’ll eventually catch a big break.

Another resplendent day at Bills training camp at St. John Fisher College comes to an end. Rookie QB Josh Allen signs some autographs. Head coach Sean McDermott yaps with a local reporter. As for Schecter, she hasn’t left the field. There, on the right hash mark, coach Rob Boras is running some extra blocking schemes with second-year tight end Jason Croom. For one drill, Schecter pretends she’s an offensive guard. The next drill she’s clutching a blue blocking pad and playing linebacker. Boras isn’t speaking to her any differently than he does assistant Marc Lubick. Croom isn’t carefully tiptoeing around her. She’s doing exactly what she’s told, and doing it right.

“I discovered what I love,” says Schecter. “And I think I’m good at it.”

She’s not alone in that thinking. A good coach possesses an indefatigable work ethic, time management skills, a head for the game, and an ability to relate to a variety of people and personalities. “Phoebe has all of those qualities,” says Boras. “I’ve watched her and she gets real respect from the players and other coaches.”

So for argument’s sake, let’s cut to 2021. Schecter’s been earning that same respect for the past five years, interning at the college and pro levels. She’s forged connections and now has coaches, management, and executives who will vouch for her. An NFL coaching gig, one might think, would be hers for the taking.

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. She’ll face other hurdles that hang over the heads of candidates who aren’t white and male. Complications that, and the end of the day, might just make hiring a man the path of least resistance for organizations.

First hurdle: The questions she’ll face. Questions that don’t arise when typical, male candidates are considered. Why hire Schecter? Because she’s good for the Bills image? Good for the NFL? Good for society? A resounding “yes” to all of the above. Would that mean she’d be best for the players? That’s where divisiveness can get in the way of a woman’s opportunity.

“If a woman can show you something that you didn’t know and make you better, not a lot of guys are going to care who’s behind the desk,” says Bennett.

But once again, pro sports prove that they aren’t like other professions. You don’t play for 40 years. If your boss sucks, you can’t just pick up and switch teams like a lawyer can switch firms. A lot of these players would like to see the world be better place, a fairer place, a more diverse place. Just not if it comes at the expense of their jobs. And that’s reflected in what the players say on the topic.

“As a pro athlete I have a small window for a career. Maybe couple years,” says Bennett. “I’m all about encouraging workplace diversity and breaking barriers, but if it affects my ability to learn at the top level I don’t want it.”

Finding the right female candidates means undertaking the right process, making sure the pieces fit and hiring someone because they make the team better. When grilled by the media after bringing on Hammon, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t talk about social progress. He used words like “fiery,” “competitive,” and “knowledgeable.” He tossed out phrases like “understands the game,” “takes no prisoners,” and “knows when to talk and knows when to shut up.” And even with 16 years in the WNBA, Hammon went through a serious vetting process.

“This wasn’t just, ‘Hey we should do this,’” explains Hammon. “Long before Pop hired me he was watching me. He had his way and the Spurs way of doing his proper homework, researching, and asking people who knew me, ‘Would this work?’ That’s why he brought me in a year before he hired me. He wanted to see how the guys respond, how we interact.”

Women need champions in pro sports who wield power. Coaches like Pop. Owners like Pegula. This isn’t lost on Pegula, who was instrumental in helping Schecter get her internship. The two met in January 2017 at the first-ever Women’s Careers in Football Forum, an NFL-sponsored initiative to help educate and prepare women for positions in football. Months later, when Pegula heard that Schecter had made the Bills her first choice for the Bill Walsh Fellowship (applicants select their top five NFL teams from whom they’d like to obtain a fellowship), the Bills co-owner passed her name on to head coach Sean McDermott.

But that didn’t guarantee the gig. While Pegula might be known as a hands-on owner, she only lets her hands reach so far. “When it comes to hiring, I leave that up to the coaching staff,” explains Pegula. “If Sean said Phoebe wasn’t a good fit, I’d say fine.”

It’s a delicate balancing act for someone who “checks a lot of boxes” (Pegula is a woman and minority). While she’s a vocal proponent of inclusion, as a team owner her priority is success.

“I want women included in the conversation. To have an opportunity,” says Pegula. “But we want to win at end of day. When that agenda goes astray — even for social progress reasons — it’s a distraction. It doesn’t work.”

Back on the football field, coach Boras finally calls it a day. It’s been a hot one and Boras, Croom, and Schecter are all likely ready to, as the saying goes, hit the showers. Which brings us to one of the most polarizing topics within the discussion of women working in male athletics — the locker room.

It’s yet another hurdle women face. And while other barriers such as playing experience may put forth a legitimate discussion, it’s clear this issue lies with the gatekeepers. The men who believe it to be problem, even when women consider it a non-issue. And it’s not solely about nudity — the problem lies with sex and power, and that becomes especially apparent when the tape recorders are shut off. “You can’t have a hot woman in the NBA,” says one veteran NBA coach. “Guys will be trying to fuck her every day.”

“This is a place where couth and tact are thrown out the window,” adds former New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley. “What’s gonna happen to your organization with the first sexual harassment lawsuit because some player throws a helicopter at one of these ladies?”

Worries of this nature are common. Just turn on the news and there’s a long list of the people across industries — people who were at the top of their fields and had the most power — who have done very wrong. And despite appearances, sports teams are somewhat delicate. Success often depends upon minimizing problems and diminishing distractions. Of course, there’s not a coach or executive in pro sports who will go on the record and say that gender factors into their hiring practices. Behind closed doors, though, it’s a very real consideration.

Pegula is an optimist, however. She believes athletes at this level are professionals and they’ll act accordingly. “I don’t worry about that stuff,” she insists. “You get the right people and they know how to conduct themselves.”

Buffalo Bills owner Kim Pegula walks on the sideline during warm ups ahead of a game.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images | Photo illustrations by Tyson Whiting

Still, Schecter and any other woman who might be trying to get a pro coaching job also can’t forget about good old-fashioned sexism on a day-to-day scale. Some players, like some men everywhere, aren’t ready to take orders from women.

“By and large the NBA is an incredibly sexist environment,” says the veteran NBA coach. “I listen to players talk about women. I have a daughter and it’s sometimes disturbing. But it’s nothing new. It hasn’t gotten worse over the years. In our society there are men uncomfortable working under women and a handful of our players would have a problem with it.”

Not to mention that lots of pro athletes consider their universe hallowed ground. A place not applicable to the “real” world. “The clubhouse is still a weird spot,” says C.J. Nitkowski, the former pitcher and first-round draft pick who is now part of the Texas Rangers’ broadcast team. “It’s not the same rules as everywhere else. Guys let their guards down and conversations take place that may offend. If there’s a female coach, now they can’t say that. They might have to change their behavior. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you run the risk of resentment.”

And that resentment can unfairly derail a female coach’s entire career. In 2009, Justine Siegal was hired as a first base coach for the Brockton Rox, an independent baseball team from Brockton, Massachusetts. As the first woman to coach in any level of pro baseball, the story made national headlines. Some of the Rox players applauded the courageous move and had Siegal’s back, but not all of the team was so welcoming.

“Some people didn’t want me there,” recalls Siegal. “From a coach calling me useless and a bunch of swear words, to being banned from the locker room, to no longer being allowed to speak to players.” After only six weeks with the Rox, Siegal was shown the door. “Officially I was let go for financial reasons,” she says with no shortage of sarcasm. “They couldn’t afford my $800 a month salary.”

Here in Rochester, Schecter is clear that she doesn’t find a shred of ill will. Not a whiff of disrespect.

“Everyone has made me feel so welcome,” she says. Crossing the St. John Fisher campus she picks up her lunch at Haffey Hall, then joins the rest of the offensive players and coaches to review that day’s film. “Could I have imagined that I’d be here?” she laughs. “Not in a million years. But after finishing the internship here last summer I thought, I can do this.”

And the fact that she’s simply trying to get a coaching job in the NFL makes her an anomaly. Another reason there are so few women on the sidelines is because, well, they don’t apply. The fact that so few women are coaching men in the pros means that even fewer women attempt to do so.

“If she can see her, she can be her,” says Megan Kahn, executive director of WeCOACH, an organization dedicated to the recruitment, advancement, and retention of women coaches of all sports and levels. “It’s a cliché, but it’s important for young women to see other women in those roles. Like the Brandi Chastain moment. How many girls did that inspire? We need that in coaching. It needs to seem normal.”

“We as women have to be comfortable marketing ourselves,” adds tennis great and ESPN commentator Pam Shriver. “We have to let people we’d like to be considered. We have to go for it.”

Obviously, Schecter has gone for it and she’s found her path. But what about women who aren’t lucky enough to land a fellowship? That road is a tough one.

“What would I tell a young girl who wants to coach men?” says Nicole LaVoi. “You’re going to have to be very knowledgeable. Start networking right now. Start volunteering now. At the high school and college level. Introduce yourself to the industry. If you have the passion, go for it. It will pay off. For everyone.”

That start-from-scratch path can even apply to women with rock-solid resumes. Women like Veronica Alvarez, a standout (and four-time medalist) with the USA Baseball women’s national team.

“As women we almost have to start in Little League,” says the former catcher. “Even there we’ll be ridiculed and people will assume we don’t know what we’re talking about. But we do. We have knowledge and ability to coach. We just have a lot more to prove than guys. A lot more barriers to break down.”

On the second Saturday of August, Phoebe Schecter watches from a window as Rochester and the Buffalo Bills fade from sight. In 10 hours she’ll be back in London and hitting the ground at full speed. First it’s a Sunday morning practice in Derby with the Great Britain women’s national team. Next, it it’s off to Cologne, Germany, for a kabaddi tournament, another contact sport Schecter’s fallen for. Those three weeks at training camp might seem distant in the rear-view mirror, but the experience isn’t going anywhere soon.

“This year was incredible,” she says. “Everything seemed slower so I could really understand what was happening. I found how to add value. How to help the players.” She also speaks about the need to keep developing and getting herself out there for every opportunity. “I’m going to apply to OTA’s and mini-camps,” she continues. “And I’ll be coaching some camps over here.”

As it turned out, however, Schecter returned to the United States on Sept. 1 as a full-time member of the Bills for the 2018 season. In a “very paid” internship, she assists both the offensive and defensive quality control coaches. She’s in the coaches’ booth every game day, on the doorstep of her dream.

Is she now suddenly feeling more pressure? The need to succeed? A bit. But not so much for her own career. Whatever happens with the Bills, she’s confident she’ll land on her feet, coaching somewhere. She’s constantly thinking of the hopefuls — those looking to follow in her footsteps.

“I don’t want to let other women down,” says Schecter. “I want young girls to be able say, ‘I can do that!’”


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