| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions offseason: How will they handle franchise tag, free agency?
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez preview the big decisions the Detroit Lions need to make this offseason.
Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
There was a time when even the NFL commissioner couldn’t help the daughter of a team owner get a job in league.
Detroit Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp was that daughter nearly 50 years ago.
While speaking Wednesday at the fifth Women’s Careers in Football Forum hosted by the NFL, Hamp told the story of befriending then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, who couldn’t help her find a job in the league after she graduated from Yale in 1973.
“All I wanted to do was go work for the NFL,” Hamp said. “I loved football, I grew up with it and I actually knew at the time the commissioner was Pete Rozelle. And my dad (William Clay Ford) had taken me to a couple league meetings and I had an opportunity to sit next to him at dinner. We kind of became friends. We communicated and he was impressed with how much a girl knew about football at the time.
INFORMED, BUT NOT INSISTING: It’s good Sheila Ford Hamp is sitting in on personnel meetings — to a point
“So anyway when I graduated I went to see him because that was my dream was to work for the NFL. And he really tried. I know he tried because he liked me and thought it would be fine. But he couldn’t think of one thing — nothing — that a woman could do in the NFL. So I’m thinking how far we’ve come.”
Imagine that. The daughter of an NFL owner with an Ivy League degree who happens to be chummy with commissioner couldn’t get a job in the league. It was less of a glass ceiling and more of a brick wall back then for women trying to break into football.
Even when Hamp’s father owned the Lions from 1963 until his death in 2014, Hamp said she and her three siblings didn’t have much say or opportunity to contribute. Bill Ford Jr. did have a more active role helping run the team later in his father’s life.
“We were all huge fans, went to the games and stuff but we had like zero input on anything,” she said. “I mean I’d offer suggestions here and there and (my dad would) say, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and then do whatever he was going to do anyways.”
That changed when Hamp’s mother, Martha Firestone Ford, took over as principal owner in 2014 at age 88 and enlisted the help of her children to run the team. Hamp was chosen as her mother’s successor and began what amounted to an apprenticeship.
Nearly 40 years after Rozelle failed to help her get a foot in the NFL’s door, Hamp’s mother helped her kick it down.
“We formed a family board,” she said. “She made all of us vice chairmen. The league requires that there be a lead director, a lead principal owner so that there’s basically one voice. So my siblings got together with my mother and they voted me to be the next person, her successor. So I had five years at least to be with mom, be by her side, attend league meetings. It was great.
“I was really in awe of what she was doing. When I first went to a league meeting with her, she was one of the very few women in the room. Now there are more of us. But she was undaunted and at her age it was amazing and really led the way. So I felt like I had had a tutor that I could learn from.”
Hamp took over as the Lions’ principal owner in June and finally got the chance to pursue her vision for the team.
“So when I took this seat about eight months ago I had also formed my own ideas about what I might do differently,” she said. “But had I not had my mom’s example I probably would have been kind of lost and not really known where to begin. But anyway she was a wonderful help to me.
“So now I am kind of trying to forge my own way. These last several months as you know have been very active for the Lions.”
That has included hiring an almost entirely new football staff, which includes general manager Brad Holmes, a Black man whom Hamp said was discovered by “casting a wide net” as part of the Lions’ intentions of hiring diverse candidates throughout the organization.
The Lions have nine women in key football positions, including Hamp and two senior vice presidents. The Lions don’t have a female coach, but they do have a woman in player personnel.
“So I think as far as the pipeline in the Lions for women on the business side is pretty good,” Hamp said. “And we’ve got a couple key people on the football side.”
Holmes also spoke at the forum Wednesday and said he expects more hiring of women in the organization.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a priority going forward,” he said. “That starts with the owner, Sheila Hamp. She sets a phenomenal standard from the very top.”
According to the NFL, Wednesday’s forum connected 40 women, 75% of whom are women of color, with leaders in pro football in order to help those women network and build relationships in coaching, scouting and football operations. According to event organizers, 118 opportunities have emerged for women in football since 2017.
“I think it is changing right before our eyes and you guys are all going to be a part of it, which is awesome,” Hamp told the forum’s attendees. “As I say, I think back on my meeting with Pete Rozelle and I was told there was nothing to do and now there’s all kinds of things to do.
“… Hopefully soon we won’t even be having these conversations because you’ll know what to do, you’ll know where to go and what the next steps are. And I think they are there but it’s a little harder to find right this second. But I really think attitudes have completely changed and it’s not some crazy anomaly (to hire women in the NFL). It’s accepted and it’s really great.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.