EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings’ new college scouting director still occasionally catches scouts, executives and coaches apologizing for swearing in a meeting.
“I have to swear back and say I swear the same as you,” she said.
That’s right. She.
Kelly Kleine is in her first season in that job for the Vikings and her responsibilities are many. She coordinates travel for scouts and visits for draft prospects. She organizes reports from those in the field. She has even started evaluating players on video and working with the special teams and defensive line. And she’s not alone as a woman in the football operations department for the Vikings.
Anne Doepner, the team’s director of football administration, has risen up the ranks over the last 11 years and is now negotiating rookie contracts for the Vikings.
The two of them have given the Vikings something that the male-dominated NFL, a league that has long been criticized for how women are viewed and treated, is trying to emphasize: an increased female presence. There are 32 women across the league that work in team football operations departments, which includes front office, coaches, scouts and football administration.
Three of Minnesota’s nine vice presidents are women, and Kleine and Doepner have both advanced after joining the team with entry-level positions.
“It starts with the fact of the importance of women in the workforce, but also the importance of women within our organization,” COO Kevin Warren told The Associated Press. “One thing that is consistent is the more diverse environment you can create from a business standpoint, it really is important.”
The Vikings also hold quarterly meetings with women inside the organization and the spouses of male employees to foster camaraderie. They have also assembled a panel of prominent women in the Twin Cities, including Lynx star Lindsay Whalen, to work on improving the female fan experience and empowering women.
“Organizations that are truly high-performing in every area, they get to that place because they’re making decisions and getting different perspectives so they can look at things in the right way and get the right result,” said Karin Nelsen, Vikings vice president of legal affairs and human resources. “If you have too much of narrow perspective, you’re not going to get to the right place.”
GM Rick Spielman and executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski say there is nothing particularly noble about their hiring practices. They have simply promoted the employees who have earned it.
“It wasn’t that we’ve got to push this because they’re women,” Spielman said. “We pushed them and developed them because of their abilities.”
Kleine had no background in football and needed a ride to team headquarters from her college roommate five years ago so she could interview a public relations representative for a school paper. She got her start as a PR intern and moved to the scouting side when another intern abruptly quick not long before the draft.
“I really didn’t even know what a personnel department was all about,” Kleine said. “I knew you had scouts and GMs and things like that. But I had no idea you had so many pieces that were behind an actual team. And I guess I never realized females weren’t really in those positions because no one sees it.”
Now Kleine is learning how to break down film with assistant coaches and sitting in on positional meetings.
“At first it was really hard for me,” she said. “It was like, ‘What am I watching?’ … But now that stuff is starting to click, it makes it a lot more interesting to watch and fun.”
Doepner’s only football experience amounted to gathering around the television on Saturdays and Sundays to watch the games with her father and brother. She was a French major at a small liberal arts college in central Minnesota and worked at a travel company right out of school before joining the PGA as a catering coordinator. That sports experience opened the door for her with the Vikings as an administrative assistant, and Doepner figured there may be more planned for the position when she was given a football quiz during her interview.
“The only question I got wrong was, ‘Who does Eddie Kennison play for?'” she said, still shaking her head. “He was with the Chiefs at the time and I play fantasy football so I should’ve known that.”
Slowly but surely, women are starting to crack perhaps the most macho sport in America. The Jets had a coaching intern and three scouting interns in training camp who were women. Jen Welter became the league’s first female position coach as an intern with the Cardinals two years ago. Kathryn Smith was hired as the NFL’s first full-time assistant with the Buffalo Bills last year and women have held prominent positions in the front office for the Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.
After getting excoriated for bungling the Ray Rice domestic violence case, among others, the NFL hired Sam Rapaport last year as director of football development to try and build a network of female candidates for football jobs for a league that saw nearly 52 million women tune in for the Super Bowl last year. The league also hired or elevated a number of women at its office in New York.
“When I came in I don’t think that there were that many women doing this,” Doepner said, mentioning Katie Blackburn with the Bengals and former Raiders executive Amy Trask as a few. “So there wasn’t really anyone I could look to and I think that that matters. I’m happy to be in a position where other women are seeing, she’s done it, she’s succeeding, that means I can, too.”
It hasn’t always been easy.
Kleine recalled a recent trip to watch a college player workout for scouts ahead of last spring’s draft. After the workout, the player came over and shook every man’s hand on the sideline and thanked them for attending. The player ignored her.
“I could not believe it,” she said. “I have never been more disrespected in my life. The scouts noticed it, too, and they could not believe it. I let it go, but I came back here and told them about it (as part of the evaluation). That’s going to get back.”
Kleine is still very young in her career and there are limits to what she can do . Male interns will take a visiting draft prospect or player through the locker room for a tour, weigh and measure them and get them outfitted with gear.
Kleine does not go into the locker room, but stressed that she feels she has been fully accepted by her male co-workers.
“There will always be that gap, which is understandable,” she said. “It’s a male team. That’s the hardest part for me. I know I fit in with everyone, but there will always be certain things that you want that you miss out on.”
Kleine is not sure where this job will take her. Doepner is not ruling out being a lead contract negotiator or more down the road.
“This is what’s really exciting about the doors these women are opening,” Brzezinski said. “I’m hoping it opens a whole new talent pool. I know there’s all kinds of women out there who would love to work in this business. Now seeing them doing it, they’re realizing this is a possibility where maybe they didn’t before.”
If that happens, Kleine is told, there is a chance she and Doepner will have played a big role in it.
“That,” Kleine said, “kind of gives me the chills.”
AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York contributed to this story.