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With hiring of Jen Welter, NFL's Arizona Cardinals make history (+video)

The Arizona Cardinals' hiring of Jen Welter as an intern to coach linebackers points to a nascent shift in pro sports. The meritocracy of 'just win' is just beginning to embrace women.

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    Jen Welter puts her helmet on before the start of the Texas Revolution practice at Bradford Crossing Park in Allen, Texas, Feb. 12, 2014. The Arizona Cardinals have hired Ms. Welter to coach inside linebackers through their upcoming training camp and preseason. 'I am honored to be a part of this amazing team,' Welter said on Twitter, Monday.
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Jen Welter charged her way into the ultimate boys club when she was announced Monday as the first woman to hold a coaching position of any kind in the National Football League.

The 14-year veteran of women's professional football leagues around the country – who also holds a master’s degree in sports psychology – was hired as an intern on the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff and tasked with guiding linebackers during the team’s training camp and preseason.

For years, women have worked in front office or administrative roles within the NFL, and the percentage of women in those positions has been increasing annually. However, when it comes to the jobs in the trenches, women have been left out.

Monday's move points to a tiny trickle of women into the overwhelmingly male world of professional sports – most notably San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, who led the team's developmental Summer League basketball team to a championship this year.

Both Ms. Hammon and Ms. Welter have iconoclastic, think-outside-the-box coaches to thank for their jobs. But their hiring also suggests that broader attitudes within the all-male fortresses of pro sports are changing and maturing. No one is expecting a flood of women coaches in football, basketball, or baseball. But this small beginning suggests that, slowly, even gender is being put aside in the search for merit in the "just win" world of pro sports.

“Obviously, it's historic,” said Nicole LaVoi, associate director of The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “The key part is that she provides a visible role model for other girls and women who love the game of football to view this as a viable career path.”

It is historic, too, for how it addresses traditional feminine gender roles in society, says Hugh Edwards, a sports sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Welter is going to be put in charge of a bunch of men playing a violent sport.

“It’s important that she’s in an executive command role,” Professor Edwards says. “There’s really a huge jump between the administration of the team and a direct interface with the product that is coming onto the field.”

At an owner's meeting earlier this year, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was asked about the possibility of a woman coach in the NFL.

“The minute they can prove they can make a player better, they’ll be hired,” Mr. Arians said.

Arians found that person in Welter, who had already shouldered her way into the history books in 2014 by becoming the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a men’s pro football league. She was a running back and played special teams for the Indoor Football League's Texas Revolution.

The Boston College grad has also picked up two gold medals as a member of the champion Team USA squads at the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championships in 2010 and 2013.

Welter’s hiring comes at a time of firsts for women in men's professional sports. In April, Sarah Thomas was announced as the first female official in the NFL’s 95-year history. The National Basketball Association has had women referees since 1997.

Last year, Hammon, a former Women's National Basketball Association star, made headlines when she was hired by the San Antonio Spurs as the first full-time woman assistant coach in league history.

Gregg Popovich, the typically grumpy Spurs head coach, has pointed to Hammond's basketball bona fides and her grasp of the team’s system as the reasons behind her hire. But the significance of her presence in the league is not lost on the five-time NBA champion coach.

"In America, we are great at sticking our heads in the sand and being behind the rest of the world in a whole lot of areas," Mr. Popovich said in an interview with KNBR.

“I think a female coaching a team these days has got a lot to do with the people on the teams maturing as individuals, as members of a society understanding that it's not about any of those things. It's about talent. It's about respect. And I think people like Becky, over time, who gain respect and people understand that this is possible, it can happen.”

Along the way, women will have to overcome a number of challenges that stem from stereotypes about gender behavior, says Edwards of the University of California.

“If a man screams at his players, well then he’s just showing executive control of his shop,” he says. “If a woman screams, then people are asking if she’s unhinged or something.”

In her limited time, Hammon has shown she can win. She acted as head coach for the Spurs during this year's Summer League. 

“You just work hard and keep your nose to the grind. You do things the right way, you treat people the right way, and good things happen,” she told Sports Illustrated after winning the title. “I’m just thankful that [Popovich] trusted me with the guys in that locker room, and that those guys trusted me back.”

Hammon’s victory in the Summer League generated talk of her being a "serious" NBA head coaching candidate.

The lack of targeted programs to promote women within top-tier leagues means that Hammon isn't likely to open floodgates for women in men’s professional sports.  

For example, in order to encourage teams to hire black head coaches, the NFL had to create the "Rooney Rule," which required all teams with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one black candidate.

Still, experts say Welter and Hammon represent a conspicuous first step in remodeling views of gender roles for millions of sports fans.

“Jackie Robinson wasn’t just important for what he brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but what he brought to American society,” Edwards says. “Opening up these opportunities to women is crucial to increasing our talent pools and competitiveness on a global scale. That’s true in sports and it's the same in our society at large.”

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