One man turned to another as they walked into a Beaux-Arts ballroom on Thursday morning in San Francisco. “Are you scared?” he said, half-jokingly, amid the electric murmur of powerful women that surrounded them.
For the vast majority of attendees at the National Football League’s first-ever women’s summit—who were, in fact, women—having such an unusual male-to-female ratio at an NFL-sponsored event was not a cause for trepidation but for applause. And for iconic speakers like tennis champion and women’s rights activist Billie Jean King, it was also an occasion to demand more from one of the most powerful sports organizations in the world.
“They have so many followers. They have so much money,” King told TIME. “I don’t think they realize the impact they could make. I don’t think they ever imagined it. I’ve been imagining it for a long time.” She said, for instance, she would like to see the NFL officially merge with America’s little-known women’s tackle football leagues, just like it merged with the AFL in 1970, three years before she bested a chauvinist male tennis player in the famed “Battle of the Sexes.”
The Rooney Rule
The exclusive summit, with no public schedule or address, was held at the Julia Morgan Ballroom and opened by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (whom King simply calls “Commish,” both to his face and when he is not around). Goodell hinted that the summit, being held in the days running up to the 50th Super Bowl, might be an annual event and spoke of the importance of getting more girls to play sports.
He also made a big announcement: that the Rooney Rule, which requires that the NFL interview minority candidates for top coaching positions, would be applied to women and executive positions. “We believe in diversity,” he said and called out some women in the first row who have recently broken ceilings for the league. Sarah Thomas, the first female NFL referee, sat next to Jen Welter, the first female NFL coach—not far from pro golfer Annika Sorenstam or singer Jordin Sparks, whose father played pro football.
Thomas wasn’t familiar with the Rooney Rule before Thursday, but she isn’t one to focus on quotas and labels. “Growing up I didn’t consider myself a female athlete. I considered myself an athlete,” she told the crowd later in the day about her youth playing basketball on a boys’ team. “Because guys don’t grow up thinking, ‘I’m a boy athlete.’” When TIME asked Thomas if the rule should go further—to be applied to official or coaching positions, for example—she said that it may be too soon.
“As far as the Rooney Rule and officiating, I’m not saying yes or no with that,” she said. “It’s whether the experience is there. And there just hasn’t been a lot of experienced female officials to be able to just apply the Rooney Rule right there in officiating yet. But I think it’s a great thing for executives.”
Big names, big speeches
The NFL put together a big-name lineup for the event. Tennis star Serena Williams will headline on Friday. On Thursday, the keynote speaker was former competitive ice skater and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “You have to work on your weaknesses and you have to play to your strengths,” she said of what she had learned from sports. “Too many people go through life just doing what’s easy for them.”
Rice argued that while religion and race and gender have been things dividing Americans, sports can be looked to as a way to strengthen bonds for America’s future multi-cultural generations. “In today’s world, when difference is a license to kill, finding ways to share experiences and have common endeavors is extremely important,” she said. “Sports is a common endeavor.” And she said that sports teach people that they are responsible for their own victories and defeats:
Responding to a question about what hurdles remain for minorities in sport, Rice said that increasing diversity is on the women and racial minorities who would play those sports just as much as management and officialdom. “It goes both ways,” she said. “The opportunities have to be opened up and those people have to be looking. Those of us who are minority, [who are] female, really have to say, ‘I’m going to break through. I don’t care what the numbers look like.’”
‘This is an opportunity’
There were several standing ovations. The crowd stood in awe of Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks, who suffered injuries on a tour in Iraq, nearly died and then became a Paralympic swimmer with hopes of making it to Rio this summer. Welter, who served as an interim coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, said she hopes that young women will see her as a possibility model. “Now little girls can grow up with that dream that I was never permitted to have,” she said while on the stage with Thomas. “Picture the sidelines. And picture the moment when two females shook hands on the ground for the very first time … That was these two females right here.”
It was a positive day for a sports organization that has lately weathered PR storms over how it handles domestic violence problems among players and reports of brain disease caused by concussions. Pundits have questioned how much of the progress is a real foundation for a new era and how much might be “window dressing.”
King believes that the NFL has reached an important early step: recognizing the league has problems. “They know they have concussion challenges. They know they have domestic abuse challenges. What’s really important is if you take ownership of something, that you’re going to do something about it,” she told TIME. “For the NFL, this is an opportunity, a moment in time. They can go back after having this first women’s summit—and see it as a start.”