TORONTO — A computerized likeness of Jen Welter barks directions to players on the sidelines, then knocks one on the helmet before sending them back on the field.
Welter recently became the first female coach in Madden NFL 20, calling it one of her "coolest" recent accomplishments.
"(The video game) was based on a conversation that I had as a consultant with Madden," Welter said. "(I told them) 'Girls can't see themselves in your game.' Everything is about a sin of omission in football. You don't have to tell girls that they can't play, right? You show them because they can't see themselves playing anywhere."
Welter was part of a four-woman panel that spoke Thursday night about the need for more female coaches in sports at all levels. She was joined by Toronto Raptors assistant coach Brittni Donaldson, WNBA and national team player Kayla Alexander, and sports activist Shireen Ahmed in conversation with She's4Sports founder Ainka Jess.
When Welter was hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, making her the first woman to coach in the NFL, the narrative was: "publicity stunt." Forget the fact she'd played football for much of her life, winning two world women's championships with the U.S. She was also a running back for the Texas Revolution of the Champions Indoor Football League, becoming only the second woman to play a position other than kicker or holder on a men's pro football team.
Welter, who has a PhD in psychology and masters degree in sports psychology, spoke about the importance of normalizing women in sport.
"We have to look at all angles of culture," said the 42-year-old Florida native, who most recently served as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Legends of the short-lived Alliance of American Football.
"So if want to see change in sport that includes sport video games, it includes sport research, it includes sport media, it includes things as powerful and prolific as hip-hop culture, right?
"Are we dropping female names to the same extent that we are male names? Or where are our warm-up songs coming from? Or do our videos not only show like guys out there balling but women as well?"
At 26, Donaldson is the youngest assistant coach in the NBA, and one of 11 female coaches in the league — five of whom were hired this past off-season.
But when she tells people she works for the Raptors, the response she gets is often: Oh, you work in ticket sales?
"And there's nothing wrong with that seriously," Donaldson said. "But I just didn't really know how to respond. I almost gave in to the fact like 'Yeah, it is kind of weird' that I'm in the front office, or I'm coaching or whatever it was I was doing at the time."
While the NBA has made inroads, the face of professional sports remains predominantly male. In comparison to the sheer number of men on NBA benches — there are approximately 200 — being one of 11 rightly seems "kind of weird."
The panel spoke about the importance of being bold. For Donaldson, it was about owning it.
"Practising (answering people) 'Yeah, I'm a coach,' . . . and then just really having confidence and conviction in what you do," she said. "Because we never give ourselves credit for things that we've actually done."
And she's done a lot in her young career. Donaldson played for the University of Northern Iowa, but her dreams of turning pro were shelved by four knee injuries. Her degree in statistics and actuarial sciences coupled with her passion for the game made for the perfect career pathway.
Before she moved to the coaching ranks, Donaldson worked for two seasons in the Raptors' front office as the team's data analyst. Because she speaks both basketball and analytics, she still has a key role translating data for the coaches and players.
Donaldson noted that the few female coaches there are in pro sports all played at a high level.
"You look at the majority of coaches who are men, and (long pause) not a lot of them played at a very high level," she said, prompting laughter from a Ryerson University audience. "But that's okay. I was predominantly coached by men my entire life, and they were wonderful coaches. But it's just something I ponder a lot: why do we have to have that extra validation to even enter the space? Why do we have to say we played this at a high level?"
Like Donaldson, Ahmed, who's an award-winning writer, speaker and activist, has stories of mistaken identity.
"I was on 'The National' after the Women's World Cup (last summer), and I remember walking into the green room, and the other panelists were like, 'Oh, so you're a fan?' I was like, 'No, I'm a writer.' 'Oh, so did you watch some of the World Cup?' 'I'm like, 'I WENT to France.'"
Ahmed, who focuses largely on Muslim women in sports, and issues such as racism and misogyny in sports, said the country took a big step backward when the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded.
"Women's soccer didn't become the most watched thing overnight," she said. "Still to this day the most watched game in United States soccer was the Women's World Cup final (in 2015). And this is (happening) all over the world. The most watched anything in the Netherlands was the final of the 2019 Women's World Cup.
"Interest in women's sport is there. We've let a whole country down. Hockey is one of the most played games by girls in this country. But guess what? There's no professional league anymore. This is a travesty."
But gains are being made elsewhere. The WNBA continues to lead the charge in gender equity, with a female commissioner and a coaching roster that's 50 per cent female. And earlier this week, the league announced a landmark collective bargaining agreement that will see average salaries rise to six figures for the first time, plus improved travel conditions and full paid salary for players on maternity leave.
"I'm very proud of it," Alexander said. "We have a lot of female coaches, and they actually take the chance of hiring former players and giving former players opportunities. That's one thing I do appreciate about our league is we're constantly giving opportunities to women who helped build the league."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2020.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Ainka Jess's first name