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Former NFL Executive Advocates For More Women In The League

Scott Pioli is setting a new standard for the NFL, forcing the powerful men within it to pay attention to highly qualified women in the industry.

There’s no doubt that the National Football League is a male-dominated environment. Few women’s football leagues exist, and if they do, they are often underrepresented and underfunded. That doesn’t mean, however, that women cannot be privy to the ins and outs of the physical sport—an idea Scott Pioli will be the first to defend. 

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Following the end of his football career at Central Connecticut State University, Pioli was lucky enough to navigate his way into the upper ranks of NFL management. He joined the NFL in 1992 as a pro personnel assistant to Bill Belichick—then the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and worked in personnel roles for the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets before becoming the vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots in 2000. The Patriots won their first three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span with Pioli in the front office. 

In 2009, Pioli became the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, and then worked as assistant general manager for the Atlanta Falcons from 2014 to 2019 before stepping down to pursue other opportunities. 

At the end of Pioli’s tenure in Kansas City, his fifth-grade daughter was part of a girls’ basketball team. He got to know his daughter’s coach, who also worked as an athletic director for the parks and recreation department, and doubled as the general manager, offensive coordinator, and quarterback for the Kansas City Titans, a pay-for-play team part of the Women’s Football Alliance

“Young men always get the opportunity to be around people with the decision-making power,” Pioli said in an interview with The New York Times. “This time, it happened for a woman.”

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The head coach happened to be Katie Sowers, who later became the first woman to ever coach in the Super Bowl in 2020 as the assistant offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. Pioli knew Sowers had the drive and skills to coach in the NFL, but knew she also needed the opportunity to get her foot in the door. 

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“I knew I had a long road ahead of me if I wanted to be an N.F.L. coach,” Sowers  told The Washington Post. “I didn’t have the opportunity to play on a college team. I didn’t have the opportunity to break down film. I didn’t have the opportunity to network like a lot of people did. But I was up for the challenge.”

When Pioli landed in Atlanta as assistant general manager, he convinced Falcons Coach Dan Quinn to consider Sowers as a candidate for the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a program meant to increase the number of minority coaches in the league. After Sowers completed her fellowship, the Falcons offered her a 10-month internship with the team. She worked hard and impressed Kyle Shanahan, the team’s offensive coordinator. Shanahan became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, and added Sowers to his coaching staff, making her the second full-time female NFL coach. 

Sowers holds the experience, the knowledge, and exhibits a grit that has allowed her to pursue such a profession. However, the NFL only becomes more diverse if the men within it are willing to open their minds to creating a level playing field for male and female candidates.     

“When you’re elevated to a platform to hopefully make a social impact and make an educational impact, you inject that into your daily life by the way you work in your daily life, by mentoring people that work completely different than you, that look completely different than you,” Pioli said in an interview with the NCAA. “If you allow this work to be exposed a little bit more, it makes other people who look like me ask questions and start to become more comfortable with it.”

Pioli’s realization of his own privilege and power is vital to the gender equality that is desperately needed in sports. Not only has Pioli been able to acknowledge his freedom from discrimination based on race and gender, but he has harnessed it to provide opportunities for individuals who are underrepresented in the league. 

In 2019, Pioli established The Scott Pioli & Family Fund for Women Football Coaches and Scouts. The foundation is meant to provide financial assistance and support women who are beginning to navigate the waters of football and hope to advance their careers in the industry. 

“Receiving this grant means validation for my choice of profession and the ability to plan into the future,” Inaugural recipient Heather Marini said to the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Most importantly though, this means staying in football – so that one more little girl can see what she can be when she grows up and one more little boy picks her for his team.”

Men like Scott Pioli, who are willing to amplify the voices of highly qualified women, are key to changing the way we see the world of sports. 

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