“I want girls growing up to see that there are no limits to them playing football,” the trailblazing former NFL coach tells Boardroom. “The goal is to continue advocating for progress in any way.”
Jen Welter says she’s been an outsider her whole career.
She became the first woman coach in NFL history in 2015 when she served as an assistant coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals focusing on inside linebackers. But with any internship, there is a start date and an end date. Welter’s time with the Cardinals is over, but she hasn’t ventured away from the football world.
Today, Welter is on the advisory board of the A7FL, the American 7s Football League.
The A7FL is a 32-team league that plays a 7-on-7 style of football with no helmets or hardshell pads. Naturally, when football fans hear that the league doesn’t use traditional pads, it begs the question: “Isn’t it too dangerous to play without pads and aren’t pads meant to protect players?”
The A7FL’s website addresses this directly, arguing that it is actually safer than the NFL because its style discourages players from using their heads on hits. It also references a 2017 report that found out of 111 former NFL players, 110 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The league has teams competing in four divisions across four states, with its four teams in Baltimore, Orlando, San Diego, and northern New Jersey.
Welter walked into the advisory role through UFC co-founder David Isaacs. Isaacs was a fan of how passionate she was about football and her vision for the potential of the sport to expand globally.
“We had a really good conversation about how to grow the game and make it more inclusive, especially for women,” she told Boardroom. “When I look at the A7FL, it fuses a lot of trends you’re seeing in football. It fits in terms of a lot of the passions that I have with accessibility and inclusion around the game.”
Outside of the A7FL, there are multiple alternative-style football leagues that have sprung up over the last decade. Some are fully padded, while others use flags to reduce contact, from the American Flag Football League (AFFL), the Fan Controlled Football, the re-launched XFL, and beyond.
The overall goal that cuts across these organizations? To provide the kind of innovation and inclusivity that proves that the NFL doesn’t have to be the only professional football game in town.
“There are so many people that love football and competition,” she said, “and there is such a narrow pipeline that is only college to the NFL. In other sports, you see that you have a minor league team or a development league; we don’t have that in football right now. What you’re seeing is alternative ways to get more people playing the game and watching the game.”
Here and now, Welter has her feet set on using her platform and perspective to help the A7FL in as many ways as she can.
“There are people here that I genuinely love and respect from a business perspective, so being in those meetings, I can learn and hopefully have a voice to expand what this league is doing in the realm of tackle football culture as a whole,” she said.
Since Welter’s 2015 NFL coaching debut, more women have gradually realized leadership and coaching positions in professional football. This year, there are 12 women in such roles, with four of them serving with the Cleveland Browns organization.
Welter is proud that she got to play a role in opening the door for more women in the league.
“The good thing is that when you open a door, it opens minds,” she said. “You can’t say it’s not possible anymore because we’ve seen it work.”
And she isn’t closing the door for potential opportunities with the NFL in the future in her own right.
“Would I love to still be there? Yes. Could it still happen? Yes. It’s a relationship business, and the hardest thing coming in as an outsider is I didn’t have the same inner connectivity as some of the players and coaches,” she said. “I didn’t have the same relationship tentacles that some of the guys who were playing would have come from various places. It’s a blessing and a curse to come in as an outsider.”
Now, she hopes that the trend of women gaining opportunities on the sideline continues and will eventually become a regular occurrence.
“I want girls growing up to see that there are no limits to them playing football,” she said. “It is the same dream that we hope for any little kid. The goal is to continue advocating for progress in any way. It is important to teach that there is no barrier simply because of gender.”