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|Katie Blackburn is a real glass-ceiling breaker -- she's the Bengals executive VP.|
This story appears in the April 30, 2012 NFL Draft issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
THERE WAS ONLY one woman in attendance at JaMarcus Russell's 2007 predraft workout -- and she was smitten. She had a good excuse: Macy Grace Miles, daughter of LSU coach Les Miles, was all of 3 years old at the time and had simply tagged along with Dad to cheer on her favorite Tiger. There was no excusing, however, the 100 or so scouts, GMs and coaches who packed the Tigers' indoor practice facility and swooned in unison every time Russell flashed the now-ironic The Chosen One tattoo on his left arm.
Any time I write about the folly of the NFL draft, I come back to this story, because it captures the most destructive force in the evaluation process: groupthink. The crowd at LSU that day, a who's who of the tight-knit, all-male fraternity of NFL talent evaluators, was infatuated by Russell's physical prowess (6'5", 256 pounds, with nearly 10-inch hands) and the potential he showed as the MVP of the Sugar Bowl -- so infatuated, in fact, that the scouts ignored the doughy paunch forming around the quarterback's
Why not try women as scouts?” -- Susan T. Spencer, the NFL's only female GM
His flaws couldn't be any more obvious, yet when asked about them, most of the experts that day echoed Brad Childress' take. The then-Vikings coach was aghast at the suggestion that Russell didn't look like a franchise QB. "Have you seen his gosh darn hands?" he said. "They're huge. It's like the kid has an extra knuckle!"
To everyone's great shock, the seemingly foolproof correlation between catcher's-mitt hands and Super Bowl MVPs proved to be flawed. Russell was selected No. 1 overall by Oakland, where for a guaranteed $32 million he produced nine wins in a career that lasted three seasons. To be fair, even the most brilliant scouts fall in love with the wrong guy every now and again; the draft will never be Ryan Leaf-proof. Still, with the benefit of hindsight and a slew of recent studies, we now know that there were essentially three things missing from Russell's predraft evaluation that could have put a stop to the mass hysteria: logic, reason and, believe it or not, the keen insight and calming influence of a female's perspective.
According to the latest science on the psychology of decision making, the grossly flawed NFL draft process would be instantly improved by adding a few women to the league's good-old-boys network. Or even just one woman. In an era when more than half of the American workforce is female, in a league with a fan base that's 44 percent female, the NFL features exactly zero women who are working in full-time scouting positions. Somehow, in 2012, almost every woman near the actual game is wearing a miniskirt and waving pom-poms. "Why not try women as scouts?" says Susan T. Spencer, the only female GM in NFL history, who ran the Eagles from 1983 to 1985
Spencer's exaggerating. The system doesn't work nearly that well. In 2010, Yale's Cade Massey and the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler examined the drafts from 1991 to 2004 and discovered that while teams were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on first-round picks, there was only a 52 percent chance that a player would perform better than someone who plays the same position but is picked later. Economists Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adams subsequently found that there is virtually no correlation between combine results and NFL performance. Amazingly, parading a 325-pound tackle through Lucas Oil Stadium in his underwear, measuring his speed 40 yards downfield and asking him what time a train will arrive in Chicago if it leaves Detroit at noon while traveling at 75 mph doesn't predict actual success on the field. In a tired, fruitless system such as this, where draft disasters like Russell are the rule rather than the exception, the real question should be: How could women do any worse? "Why do they line guys up half-naked at the combine?" said Packers All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson in January. "Because scouts love more than anything to fall head over heels for that look, that body type, that prototype, guys who look the right way no matter if they can play a lick or not. Is it really that hard to find someone in tune with the game enough to look at something besides the obvious?"
Women to the rescue. In many areas important to the scouting process -- thinking independently, seeing the big picture, sizing up a player beyond his talent -- they are hardwired to do better. According to Ilan Shrira, a psychology professor at the University of Florida who studies and writes about gender differences in decision making, men tend to see things in black-and-white absolutes: Mike Mamula is a beast, Charles Rogers is fast, Russell's hands are huge! What's more, research shows that men, over thousands of years, have been socialized to value the way a decision is made
|Susan T. Spencer ran the Eagles from 1983 to 1985.|
All these male tendencies can be a recipe for disaster on draft day. When a war room becomes fixated on a physical specimen, it will tend to wave off red flags or contrary evidence about that player's attributes. Without anyone to check the groupthink, the team is susceptible to reaching badly for the object of its desire. Similar all-male hothouses in the financial and banking world nearly toppled the global economy. Taken to the extreme in football, you get the Ricky Williams trade of 1999, in which Mike Ditka dealt multiple picks for the right to draft the Texas running back. The Saints coach simply couldn't imagine that Williams would turn out to be anything less than a savior. (Even when the next few years proved Ditka wrong, the recklessness of the move reinforced his reputation as one of the game's renegades.)
Women, on the other hand, are much less likely to have blinders when it comes to big moves. They also do a better job placing choices in context. In football terms, female scouts might have seen that Vince Young, for all his awesome talent, was not a good fit with the team, coaching staff or scheme in Tennessee.
Another place where the NFL could really use a woman's touch is with the impossible task of predicting how a newly minted 21-year-old millionaire will behave once he hits the league. Most teams use personal interviews to gauge a potential player's intangibles -- work ethic, leadership, motivation, teamwork -- but the results would likely be more reliable if women were leading this process. Shrira says studies show that women are intuitively better at discerning and exploring a candidate's character. Adds Spencer, "This is the unique dimension women would add to the draft: getting to the absolute heart and soul of a player."
These insights have real value. A 2004 study conducted by the research group Catalyst found that companies with the most women in senior management roles had more than a 30 percent higher return on equities. Translated loosely to the NFL that's, oh, $2.7 billion more per year in profits for the NFL and three more wins for the Cardinals.
You'd have to be daft to turn a blind eye to these potential rewards -- yet that's exactly what the NFL is doing. Here's the good news: Based on a 2011 report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 25 of the NFL's 155 positions at the team VP level are held by women. That number, which has doubled in the past six years, is now in line with the business world at large, where 15.6 er of Fortune 500 corporate officers in 2007 were women. Oakland's Amy Trask is the NFL's first and only female CEO. In San Diego, Jeanne M. Bonk is the Chargers' chief financial officer. In Miami, Dawn Aponte is the Dolphins' capologist and senior VP of football operations.
But the three women have little direct influence in determining their team's roster -- and there's no pipeline of female evaluators coming any time soon. Aponte says that 99 percent of the time she's the only woman in the room. "I'm not sure it's teams' unwillingness to recognize women as scouts or just a lack of females who have pursued that avenue," she says.
Actually, the more you study the strange, archaic subculture of scouting -- a pseudo-science based largely on metrics, measurements and mythical instincts that have proven to be perfectly worthless -- the more the absence of women appears to be based simply on the industry's utter lack of imagination and ingenuity rather than sexism. "Successful scouting is about thinking outside the box and finding new ways to do things," says Howie Roseman, GM of the Eagles. "I've always thought about that in terms of getting as many smart, hardworking people around you as possible. I've never broken it down by gender, but now that you mention it, my wife does read people better than I do. It's an interesting thought. I'll have to look into it."
One pioneering leader already did. In the late 1970s, Bills owner Ralph Wilson turned to his daughter Linda Bogdan for scouting help. While acting as a part-time evaluator in 1979, Bogdan's lukewarm assessment of the Bills first-round pick, linebacker Tom Cousineau, eventually prompted her father to trade him to the Browns in a deal that eventually netted Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. In 1988, Bogdan asked for -- and was given -- a full-time scouting gig with the Bills because, she once joked, she had grown "tired of too many 2-14 seasons."
Bogdan helped scout future Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas along with Cornelius Bennett, Carlton Bailey and several defensive mainstays on the Bills' four Super Bowl teams. A decade and a half later, after she had worked her way up to team VP and the assistant director of college and pro scouting, she was stricken by cancer. Bogdan, the only
In fact, Bogdan all but shattered the commonly held misconception that playing football is a prerequisite for working in personnel. Of the past 10 GMs to be named Executive of the Year, three had no football-playing experience, and only the Packers' Ted Thompson, an NFL linebacker from 1975 to 1984, played above the small-college level.
Still, in today's NFL, many of the top-ranking females are related to the owner: Charlotte Jones Anderson, the Cowboys' executive VP of brand management, is the daughter of Jerry Jones; Rita Benson LeBlanc, executive VP of the Saints, is the granddaughter of Tom Benson; Bengals executive VP Katie Blackburn is the daughter of Mike Brown. But tomorrow's NFL? That will be another story if Blackburn, who attends the combine and watches film as part of her duties as the team's lead contract negotiator, has her way.
Blackburn grew up in Cincinnati and played varsity ice hockey at Dartmouth. During law school, she worked part time in the Bengals' ticket office. After she graduated, Blackburn took a full-time job as general counsel with the team in 1991 before assuming her current title in 1999. That's when her mom, Nancy Brown, predicted Katie would one day "turn the boys of the NFL on their ears."
As the likely heir and future franchise boss, the normally stern but self-effacing Blackburn perks up at the idea of one day working alongside her teenage daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline. And maybe, just maybe, they will be handing her their scouting reports on the next Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. "With the way everything else has evolved, in time you will see women on the football side of things," says Blackburn. "I certainly wouldn't doubt it; I would expect it. There's no reason women can't fulfill these roles as well as men."
One would hope they'd set their goals a little higher than that.
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