By Tom Withers
Catherine Raîche can remember hearing the doubt and disbelief over the phone when she said she was a college scout for the NFL.
In her first role with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019, Raîche would regularly reach out to schools across the country to inquire about prospective players. More than once, her requests were met with suspicion.
“I was asked to send a picture of my business card because they didn’t believe I was a scout,” said Raîche, currently Cleveland Browns assistant general manager and vice president of football operations. “That happened multiple times, and it’s not like it was 10 years ago.”
Those awkward conversations and questions come far less frequently these days.
Now the highest-ranking female executive in league history, Raîche is one of the vanguard of women helping bring overdue balance to hiring in the NFL and opening doors in a world once ruled exclusively by men. After years of slow, sometimes sideways steps toward progress, record numbers of women are reshaping America’s most popular sport.
Catherine Raiche, assistant GM & vice president of football operations for the Cleveland Browns, is pictured during an interview at an NFL football practice, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, in Berea, Ohio. Women are reshaping America's most popular sport, which has made major strides in gender equity. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
But despite the dramatic improvements in less than a decade, the NFL has more work to do as women still lag in equal representation and the league faces allegations ranging from gender discrimination to toxic workplace cultures.
The Browns, who have been at the forefront of creating positive growth for women, were also widely condemned last season for signing quarterback Deshaun Watson to a fully guaranteed $230 million contract despite accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment brought against him by two dozen women.
Though Watson served an 11-game league suspension, his connection to Cleveland perhaps underscores deeper issues that merit attention.
“We’ve only scratched the surface so far, but when you zoom out and look at the progress the NFL has seen in the last seven years compared to its first 100 years of existence, it is remarkable,” said Sam Rapoport, the league’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, and a driving force in its hiring equality efforts.
In recent years, more women have moved into prominent positions throughout the league, with several rising to decision-making executive roles to redraw pro football’s hierarchy.
And it’s not just at the top. In front offices, personnel departments, coaching staffs, officiating crews, equipment and training rooms and on down to the sidelines, the league is finally beginning to mirror society as women get jobs that once went only to men.
This season, 223 women are working in full-time coaching or football operations roles in the NFL, a modest jump from 199 last year but a 141% gain since 2020. Ten women hold full-season coaching positions, the most in history, and 11 clubs had women in coaching roles during training camp this summer, another high.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the overall percentage of women in the NFL's league office was 41.3% in 2022, an all-time high and increase from 29.6% in 2014.
It’s taken time, but women, who make up more than half the U.S. population and nearly half the NFL’s fan base — roughly 80 million — are at last seeing more opportunities when it comes to hiring.
Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, smiles during an interview over Zoom from New York on Nov. 10, 2022. Rapoport spearheaded the first NFL Women's Forum in 2017 with the goal of connecting female candidates to teams. It had always bothered her that women couldn't pursue careers in a game they enjoyed. (AP Photo/File)
Rapoport spearheaded the first NFL Women’s Forum in 2017 with the goal of connecting female candidates to teams. It had always bothered her that women couldn’t pursue careers in a game they enjoyed.
“There were no women in coaching,” said Rapoport, who like Raîche grew up in Canada obsessed with football. “There were no women in scouting, and many of us looked around and said, ‘This has to change.’”
Determined to make a difference, Rapoport cornered Commissioner Roger Goodell at a youth flag football tournament he was hosting and pitched her dream of bridging the league’s gender gap — with the Women’s Forum at its core.
“In 2017, there were nine clubs, two owners, one head coach and no general managers” at the forum, she said. “Fast forward seven years now, and at this year’s program we had all 32 teams. We literally had standing room only.”
In the past few years, Rapaport has heard anecdotes of how women have improved pro football’s product. She said one general manager told her balancing his scouting operation with an equal number of men and women had a profound effect: It made the men better.
“It became more reflective of society and it allowed men to just do their jobs instead of just heavily competing against each other. I thought it was such an interesting observation because it really proves what considering the entire population does. It’s not just about bringing women in. When you consider everyone, everyone does better because you get better people in your office,” Rapaport said.
Although Raîche may be the top-ranking female employed by the Browns, she’s got plenty of company within the organization.
Cleveland Browns co-owner Dee Haslam walks on the field before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. Dee Haslam has been among the league's most fervent supporters of female equality. (AP Photo/David Richard, File)
Co-owner Dee Haslam has been among the league’s most fervent supporters of female equality. The Browns have hired more candidates from the NFL’s Women’s Forum than any team, and a quick look at one of the team’s practices — with women working all over the field — underscores progress.
“There’s a lot of pluses about having females involved, but really it’s just that we hire the best people and they happen to be women,” Haslam said. “I came up in a generation where I had to fight for everything. It’s so nice to see that women don’t have to do that anymore.”
Thanks to women like Dawn Aponte, those barriers are easier to navigate.
“The godmother,” Rapoport said of Aponte. “We’re all standing on Dawn’s shoulders.”
Now the NFL’s chief football administrative officer, Aponte began in the NFL in the early 1990s, when women barely felt welcome and were often ignored or overlooked.
“There were no professional females at the New York Jets,” said Aponte, who began in the team’s accounting department.
Maybe naive, but full of ambition, Aponte was determined to climb the football side of New York’s organization. There were plenty of moments of failure and frustration, such as when she was asked to leave the team’s draft room after a Jets executive excused her by saying, “I don’t think she has anything to contribute here.”
Dawn Aponte, executive vice-president of football administration for the Miami Dolphins, left, stands with general manager Dennis Hickey, right, during an NFL training camp practice, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, in Davie, Fla. Now the NFL's chief football administrative officer, Aponte began in the NFL in the early 1990s, when women barely felt welcomed and were often ignored or overlooked. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Aponte pushed forward and persevered. She credits several male mentors, including Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, who hired her in 2010 with Miami, for helping open doors once off limits to women in the NFL.
“They make the difference," she said. “There's only so much you can do. You want to be recognized for what you’re able to contribute, but those individuals give you the credibility.”
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski is following that lead. When he was hired by Cleveland, Stefanski's initial addition was to make Callie Brownson his chief of staff. It was a role Stefanski had in Minnesota, and he felt an obligation to jump-start someone else's career the same way.
In this case it was a woman, and Brownson has since been promoted to assistant coach.
“We’ve tried to be very intentional about including women in all areas of our organization because this is not just a boys' game," Stefanski said. "This is a kids' game and that’s boys and girls. We want all the young girls that fall in love with the game to see examples of women on our coaching staff, on our personnel staff, maybe doing P.R., whatever it is, this is not something where we are exclusionary.”
Perhaps more than anyone, Aponte feels a personal sense of satisfaction at how different things are for women today. Her daughter, Madison, is a college scouting director with the Kansas City Chiefs.
At last year’s Super Bowl, things came full circle as she watched he daughter work with the defensive coaches on the practice field.
“That was a picture in my mind and a moment in time where I was like, ‘Wow, things have changed,’ where you could see that that would have never happened,” she said. “That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago, quite frankly.”