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Out Of Bounds: Jen Welter On Breaking Barriers In Football



Women and football - almost half of the fans are women, but most NFL jobs are held by men. This week in Out Of Bounds, Jen Welter - she made history twice, first as the first woman to play running back in a men's professional football league and then as the first woman to ever coach in the NFL. Her new book is called "Play Big." And Jen Welter joins me now from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

JEN WELTER: Hey, thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were the first woman to coach in the NFL. You were hired as an intern coach for the Arizona Cardinals during the 2015 preseason. Tell me about those days coaching. And did you feel like you had to win any skeptics over?

WELTER: You know, I would say those days coaching were some of the best days of my life. Internally, we were really solid, you know, from the players to the coaches. They were all very supportive. I think the skeptics came, a lot of the times as they do, from the outside looking in. They saw us as being very different, you know, men working with women. And what they didn't realize is that we were more alike than we were different. We were alike in the game and in what we had dedicated to be great. And those guys knew everything about me and my story before I got there, right? Like, they were literally like, coach, we watched your game film. Like, you are a beast off the edge, like - and they couldn't believe that I had played a season against guys, like, getting tackled by guys their size. And there was definitely an energy within the team that it was something very special, and those guys were proud to be a part of history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been a lot of focus on the culture for women in the NFL. I'm thinking particularly of the Ray Rice scandal, and what can be perceived as a tolerance for abuse by male players. Does that make it harder for women, do you think?

WELTER: Well, you know, I think in - let's like back out of that for a second, right?


WELTER: Domestic violence is not specifically an NFL issue. It's a societal issue. We discuss it more because these are guys that we put up as heroes. So we care more. Now, when you look at how punishments have been structured on, say, you know, a two-game suspension there versus, I don't know, four games for deflated footballs, should we see that there might be a perception problem? Yeah. And what has to happen from the top down and the bottom up is that we say certain things aren't acceptable, right? It's not acceptable, and we're going to send that message across the board.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think it is important to have women coaches and more female presence within the ranks of football?

WELTER: Well, you know, I think in anything, it's important to have the most qualified people at the table and to realize that every voice is valuable. And it may be a different voice. You know, for me, I think it was good for me to be there because not only - you know, yes, it's a woman, but it's also somebody who had a doctorate in psychology. And my focus was on getting to know the players as people and to bring that empathy into the equation, whether it was, you know, a guy who's in an argument with his wife at home, right? Like, my wife is so mad at me, and I don't even know what I did. Well, come on. Let's talk about it. I'm an expert in male-to-female translation. Let's see if we can figure this out. I add the perspective to be able to help them that were maybe the guy coaches wouldn't. And I think anytime you increase diversity into an equation, you're going to maximize the opportunities for connection and hopefully to make sure all voices are heard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Football has been at the center of a cultural controversy in recent weeks. I'm sure you've heard. So I'd like to just get your temperature on how you feel about NFL players choosing to kneel on the field, to stand up for racial justice.

WELTER: Well, I like that question a whole lot better because usually people are saying should they kneel for racial injustice or should they stand for the flag. And I don't think that those should be an either/or. Because a lot of the people who are kneeling are doing it because they believe in this country and what that country stands for. I think that any time you're in a power point in society, it's your job to look out for those who may not have the opportunity and the platform to change societal norms. Now, on the other hand, you know, my father is a Vietnam veteran. And it upset him at first when they were kneeling during that national anthem because it felt like they were going against the flag. And I think that that's where we got - we lost sight of what was important and what's important is standing up or, in this case, taking you knee for - to make a statement to try and promote cultural change. I would have rather see to see it not during the national anthem. But to unify for the greater good takes a lot of bravery. And that's what our soldiers fought for, is for that right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jen Welter - her new book is called "Play Big." Thank you very much.

WELTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.