Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust believes there would be more women in the NFL this season were it not for the impact of COVID-19; watch Super Bowl LV between the Chiefs and Buccaneers, live on Sky Sports NFL from 10pm Sunday
By Cameron Hogwood
Coach Lori Locust gives back as good as she gets with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Any trash talk, any back chat, any jokes at her expense from the players and “she’ll crack some bombs,” said defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers, who Locust serves as assistant to.
She bears the brunt of light-hearted flack on the practice field just as her male colleagues do, which is perhaps the biggest compliment to the gender-blind environment Bruce Arians and the Tampa Bay front office have installed in recent years.
Rodgers admitted he had questioned how working with a female assistant for the first time might be different when Locust was hired to a full-time role ahead of the 2019 season, only to find there was no difference at all. Two years later, he doesn’t see her as a women, but simply as ‘Coach Lo’.
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy mirrored sentiments this week as both asked why colour needed to be brought into the conversation surrounding coaching hires. Indeed, why?
“You don’t ever want to be recognised for what you do by your race or colour, you want to be recognised by how great of a coach you are,” said Bieniemy.
Locust and Bucs Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach Maral Javadifar can empathise, the latter outlining the wider goal of no longer being a headline as the pair prepare to become just the second and third women ever to coach in a Super Bowl.
“I feel extremely blessed to have this opportunity and I know that coach ‘Lo’ and [game official] Sarah [Thomas] feel the same way,” Javadifar said on Monday. “I do look forward to the day when it’s no longer newsworthy to be a woman working in the pros or making the Super Bowl for that matter.
“I hope we get to the point where all people are affording equal opportunity to work in professional sports.”
Katie Sowers became the first women to ever coach in a Super Bowl last year when she worked as an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers. She stepped away from her role this season to leave a total of seven female coaches across the league, six of which were involved in the playoffs in January.
Tampa Bay’s Wild Card matchup with Washington made history as the first game in which female coaches from opposing teams had faced off in the postseason, with Locust and Javadifar coming up against full-year coaching intern Jennifer King.
But as it was then, the story is the job at hand, rather than their involvement. That job being to see off the defending champions.
“I think the nice thing about all of this right now is that kind of title doesn’t matter,” said Locust. “MJ (Javadifar) and I are here to help Tampa Bay win. It wouldn’t matter if we’re second in or 273rd in, we acknowledge the fact there hasn’t been many before us but it’s not anything we kind of keep in the forefront of what we do on a daily basis.”
Locust recalled the difficulties female coaches had previously faced when it came to establishing connections in comparison to the expansive male coaching trees that can often date back as far as high school.
The NFL sought to address gender diversity among coaches in 2016 by hiring Sam Rapoport as Director of Football Development in view of widening the pathway for female candidates.
A year later Rapoport, who has since become Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, introduced the inaugural NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum alongside the 2017 Scouting Combine, uniting female coaches working in college football jobs and providing them with the chance to speak with and seek advice on all areas of operations from NFL and college team owners, general managers, head coaches and club executives.
Locust believes the Forum, which was made an annual event, has helped turn the spotlight towards the work female coaches are putting in behind the scenes at lower levels in order to bolster their credentials.
“You have to understand there’s a blessing and a curse with media coverage in regards to women coaches, because what it looks like sometimes is that we’ve just sprung up out of nowhere, whereas there are hundreds of women that are at various levels of football whether high school, college, semi-pro and they’ve been kind of out there doing it on their own and earning those positions on their own without any help from anyone else,” she said.
“Where this starts to take shape is the pipeline that Sam Rapoport has just championed and put together with the NFL. The women’s forums that she has constructed over the last few years have put head coaches and GMs and lead scouting department people in front of some very viable, young, promising, talented women.
“I feel if Covid hadn’t hit you’d have seen so many more women in the league this year, whether internships or straight hires. I think that it’s just shining a light now back on the women that are already out there.”
Bucs coach Arians was honoured with the Champion for Equality Award by the great Billie Jean King in 2020 in recognition of his contributions to gender inclusivity.
Last year also saw the franchise launch the Buccaneers Girls in Football Scholarship – for which the second annual round of applications opened this week – as the first NFL team to introduce a scholarship programme available to female high school players across the country who are pursuing a career in sports, have posted a minimum 3.0 grade point average and plan on attending a four-year college or university.
The Jr. Bucs Flag Football programme meanwhile supports over 35,000 female students each year, reaffirming the message that the sport is for all while giving females the early access to career advice and fundamentals that perhaps wasn’t available to Locust and others in the past.
“Before the pipeline was put into existence through the forums it felt very isolating at time to be doing what I was doing,” she admitted. “I really didn’t have somebody, other than my male colleagues, that I could ask about job tracking and where to go next and trying to make common-sense decisions on my own.
“But it’s so much more valuable when you’re sitting in a room and you’re of likeminded individuals and you can start to connect with other women and again I think the way this has been put together with the league and with Sam it’s very non-competitive when you’re sitting on that same table of women, you’re not all vying for the same positions but you’re gathering the information in order to take it back to where you’re at currently.
“It’s so valuable and it’s something we’ve been lacking, but now it’s in place I do feel like you’re going to see a lot more qualified candidates being brought to the table, and hopefully teams like Tampa Bay have set the example for starting to look at candidates regardless of gender or colour and start to broaden their talent pool.”
Arians set the tone in July 2015 during his time as Arizona Cardinals head coach when he made intern Jen Welter the first women to coach in the league.
He has since constructed one of the most diverse units in the NFL, with Black coaches Bowles, Byron Leftwich, Keith Armstrong and Harold Goodwin all part of his backroom staff.
His attitude is echoed throughout the organisation, with head strength and conditioning coach Anthony Piroli documenting how Javadifar’s hugely impressive phone interview had made her a clear frontrunner ahead of landing her job in Tampa.
“You have to understand this is not something that’s done because of checking boxes, it’s not done because of an initiative, it’s who BA (Arians) is and has always been,” continued Locust.
“I think that’s why it works so well here. He’s gathered individuals he knows will benefit the organisation, he has talent, he has people he can trust around him and it doesn’t matter what we look like.
“He’s put together that staff because it’s people he feels will help the team to win and clearly that combination has worked, but I do think it starts at the top, it starts with our ownership, it starts with BA and his freedom to make those types of choices has been invaluable.”
In need of evidence Arians’ hires have paid off?
“I think a good result is to say we’re playing on Sunday,” Locust quite simply put it.