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NFL's First Female Coach Raises The Perennial 'Distraction' Question


Time now for sports.


MARTIN: There was big news in the NFL this past week. The Arizona Cardinals hired a new coach. Doesn't sound like a big deal, you say, except this coach is a woman. Her name is Jen Welter, and this is a first for the entire league. But anytime any kind of sporting team hires someone out of the ordinary, there is talk about whether or not said person will be a, quote, "distraction to the team." Mike Pesca has been ruminating on this idea. He joins me now. Hey, Mike.


MARTIN: All right, can you just start off by telling us more about this new coach, Jen Welter? Who is she? What's her background?

PESCA: Yeah, she's got a long time in football, about 15 years. She played professional women's football for a long time. Then she became the only woman in a non-kicking position to play in a man's game in the Indoor or the Arena Football League, as it's sometimes called. She has a PhD in psychology. Add it all - she loves football - add it all up, those are called kind of impressive credentials.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, she's legit. But I'm going to be the spoilsport here and point out the fact that this is not a full-time coaching job, right? She's part of an intern program.

PESCA: Right. So the NFL has a program - and teams do this, where just to get other people in the pipeline and in the name of diversity, in the name of just, you know, more opportunity. So she, during the summer - during the preseason - will be coaching, in an internship position, paid, the inside linebackers. But that doesn't mean this is a sham. From this very program, other assistant coaches, NFL head coaches have emerged. So she'll really be doing coaching. And the Cardinal staff will really see what she's got.

MARTIN: All right, but apparently there are some who say that just having a female on the coaching staff at all is going to be a distraction. Who's saying this, and what's their argument? Because, I mean, come on, it's 2015.

PESCA: There are some, and there's this thing called social media.

MARTIN: I've heard of it (laughter).

PESCA: And whenever there is some, (laughter) those some will say it on social media. But also, you know, sports talk radio, even in the headline of just about the number one football blog, the main quote was Bruce Arians, coach of the Cardinals, saying she won't be a distraction. So the question is...

MARTIN: So he's anticipating that criticism.

PESCA: Yes, why would she be a distraction? I think that, you know, some fans maybe don't want to be brave enough just to say, I am sexist, and this is wrong. So they say, oh, maybe she'll be a distraction. And then if you look at the case of Michael Sam, the NFL player, the - who - first openly gay player, there was so much media attention. And it does become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But I also think that it's because fans, or at least those posing the question, do not understand the mindset of the professional athlete. And yeah, they have to have physical gifts, but you have to be so laser-focused. The mental part of the game is so important. I talked to longtime sports journalist Jeff Pearlman about this. He has written books on Roger Clemens, Barry bonds, the '86 Mets, the Dallas Cowboys of the Michael Irvin, Emmit Smith, Troy Aikman-era, in other words, great athletes in teams who should be distracted and just weren't. Now, Pearlman thought of one instance where maybe you could say there was a distraction.

JEFF PEARLMAN: When Emmitt Smith held out and missed the first two games of a season, it was a distraction. But it was really a distraction because the guy who replaced him, a running back named Derrick Lassic, just wasn't that good.

MARTIN: So, well, it wasn't Smith's fault. It was because people just missed him.

PESCA: Right, the falloff from a great player to a not great player hurt the team. The fact that guys were getting stabbed and arrested on that very team did not bother the members of the Dallas Cowboys, just like there's no way that Jen Welter will bother the members of the Arizona Cardinals. In fact, she might prove to be an excellent asset. You know, Becky Hammon is a coach, and she's on the bench with the San Antonio Spurs. And there was less talk of a distraction there just because the Spurs have proven themselves to be such an efficient, excellent team. And I think what we're going to see with football - yes, it's unusual to perhaps some people who have sports talk radio shows. But we're going to see that this is going to be no problem whatsoever. It almost never is.

MARTIN: Mike Pesca, never a distraction - well, sometimes, but in a good way. He is the host of Slate's The Gist podcast. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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