Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Jane Skinner Goodell
Position: Co-Executive Producer of NBC/NFL Films television series "Earnin' It: The NFL's Forward Progress"
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When did your love of football begin?
I grew up in Chicago and my dad purchased Bears season tickets in 1972. He bought four tickets and still has them to this day. I have two older brothers and my dad always took the three of us to games. He was a bit of a tough taskmaster about it. It didn't matter if the wind chill was 10 degrees below zero or if the Bears weren't going to make the playoffs, we still went and weren't really allowed to be fair-weather fans. My mom is probably the most rabid football fan in our family. I think that fourth ticket was for her and not the little girl in our family, but I think – and I should ask her to be sure – she gave that ticket to me, which was lovely.
I laugh about a couple of things when I look back at it now. Just a few weeks ago, we were at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, and I told my daughters to look around and notice that women were everywhere. It's commonplace now; I remember there was a group of women behind us that were on a girl's night out at the game. In the '70s, taking a little girl to Solider Field was a bit of an anomaly.
Another thing -- and the funniest story to me -- is when Roger (Goodell) asked my dad if he could marry me, my dad said, "I've prepared her so well for this life." Roger wasn't the NFL commissioner then, but he was still working in the league. With Roger being so passionate about his work and the game, along with the amount of time he puts in, it would be hard if I wasn't a football fan. Thankfully, my dad is right, because he kind of paved the way for me to enjoy and love the game.
Speaking of Roger, what would you say is the most challenging part of being the NFL commissioner's spouse?
It comes with so many joys and pinch-me experiences that those really outweigh the hard days. Roger is somebody who wakes up in the morning and says, "It's such a privilege to do what I do." He approaches challenges like nobody I've ever seen; he's so optimistic. That's really how I try and my family tries to look at it. There will be hard days no matter what you do, but we get to meet so many extraordinary people and do so many extraordinary things as part of this platform the NFL has.
This also applies to coaches' wives, players' wives and any family member of someone who is in a public position, but it's hard when you see someone you love criticized. It's not a secret that it took me a while to adjust to that, and I had to adopt his approach to it. He's always said, "I know who I am and what needs to be done." He knows he's in this position temporarily to protect the league. I can remember one of the really rough news days years ago when my daughter was in middle school. She said something to the effect of, "I'm not so worried about it because I know who my dad is." I thought that was super profound coming from her at that age, and she's right. We know where his heart is. But that has been a learning process for me.
After I retired from being a news anchor at Fox News, these projects were staring me in the face. For A Lifetime of Sundays, I had the opportunity to sit with Bears owner Virginia McCaskey. Her mind is just like in the film. She's in her 90s and it's like talking to somebody in their 30s or 40s. She remembers everything and goes to all of the Chicago Bears games still at 99 years old. I remember asking her what her first football memory was, and it was in 1927! She could tell me where she sat in Wrigley Field and the coat that her mom wore. It's so remarkable.
It was the same thing with Earnin' It; this story just needed to be told. If five years ago I would have said the Super Bowl would have a female referee in Sarah Thomas and the winning team would have two female coaches in Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar, I don't think you would have believed me. I probably wouldn't have necessarily either. Change has come so quickly in recent years, and I just didn't want time to go by without chronicling it for people to see how it happened. It's remarkable that it was a quick change but also in one of the most male-dominated industries in our country. The male voices in the series are so strong. We talk to coaches, the NFL commissioner and we just talked to former President George W. Bush. I love telling stories and I felt strongly about telling this one because it could be helpful to someone in a different industry, too, who's looking to bring in another set of viewpoints and voices. If women can break barriers in the NFL, they certainly can do it other places.
What do you hope viewers takeaway from Earnin' It, both the series and podcast?
It's funny. I pitched the podcast to iHeartMedia without talking to Sam Rapoport first. I knew Sam had helped create the pipeline for women in the NFL and knew she'd be a great podcast voice though she had never done it. When we pitched the television series, we wanted it to become obsolete, for this to not be a story anymore. The podcast is a little different because Sam really talks about the creation of the pipeline and digs deep into that. For the series, we have a ton of female voices – anyone from an agent to an owner to general counsel to the producer of this year's Super Bowl halftime show.
I hope the biggest takeaway is that these women are qualified, have great football minds and are the real deal in terms of their football knowledge. Ron Rivera said it best when he said hiring women isn't just done for the token or the hype or the attention. It's done because they deserve to be here. He was specifically talking about Jennifer King, who has the right skills for her position as Washington's assistant running backs coach and the passion. So, we really wanted to peel back the layers and challenge any assumptions that people might have about how these women got to where they are.
And what have you learned through these projects?
I've learned that I'm not as brave as these women. To be the first at something is really brave. The question I ask all of the women is, "How do you deal with the pushback?" Interestingly, the pushback is not from the players, who view female coaches as any other coach who can help them win. The pushback comes from social media. I've learned a lot about how they've handled that when all eyes are on them. They have different ways of dealing with it, but the overall theme is you have to not pay attention to it. One woman said, "I remind myself that I'm the one driving to the NFL facility every morning, not those people." They have a real skill of tuning the criticism out and compartmentalizing, which is essential.
Is there anything else about the series that you'd like to share?
One episode will be released per week for five weeks beginning Sunday, Jan. 23. Episodes 4 and 5 will have a lot of Super Bowl LVI content, which really hasn't been done before. We're going behind the scenes starting in the fourth episode as they prepare for the halftime show. It's loaded with big names – Mary J. Blige, The Rock and others. We're not going to give away what the show will look like but we will be shooting on game day to give the inside look. That is something that will be different. It will still tell the stories of women you haven't met but through the lens of the halftime show.
What would you say to a female considering a career in football?
I remember being told so many times during my career in media to find a mentor. At one station, and I was probably 26 years old at the time, I walked up to this woman who I thought was a fantastic reporter and said, "Hi, could you be my mentor?" She said, "No, I'm really busy." She didn't say it to be unkind but she probably was busy. So I just moved on and learned that it has to come more organically than that. So, I would say you shouldn't feel the pressure to find a mentor initially because you'll learn from a lot of different people. Keep your eyes and ears open, and soak it all in.
I would also say don't be afraid to take an opportunity that isn't in line with what you think your path should be. The women in this series are the perfect example of not having a straight path. When you look at some of the top coaches in the league, like Bill Belichick, he knew the steps to becoming a head coach. But what makes the women's stories so interesting are the paths they've taken are so varied. I think it provides such rich stories and their life experiences are also what make them better coaches. The story Lori Locust tells in the first episode is about how many different teams she's coached at all different levels, sleeping in her car, trying to make ends meet as a single mother. A lot of these women coached for a side job; King was a police officer to pay the bills and coached on the side. There are so many unique stories.
I have found that to be a theme of the Next Woman Up series as well. When you look at the NFL over the last 20-plus years, how have you seen it change for women?
Like I mentioned earlier, it's commonplace to see women throughout the NFL now, whether in the league office or within the clubs or as fans in the stadiums, and there is research behind that. I think this is another reason we did Earnin' It too, because these women are living dreams. There are so many other females out there who had dreams of being an NFL coach but didn't know they could do it. I also love that women are embracing their own fandom.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Earnin' It?
I am so pleased that I had a gut feeling that this content wouldn't just be for women. I just knew there were so many men who would wanted to take part in it and help tell the stories of these women with such strengths and who are role models. I'm so happy about the number of men who have continually said yes to this project. This series is going to have a lot of football and a lot of well-known people, and that, to me, was the goal -- to show how change is being made with smart, strong people and with all genders taking part.