Lorenzo Reyes

On the day the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookies reported for training camp, a new employee also started her first day.

The hiring went mostly unnoticed aside from a handful of news stories; the Buccaneers actually didn’t even issue a press release or publish any content on their official website to announce it.

But on July 27, when she spent her first day as Tampa Bay’s director of football research, Jacqueline Davidson became the highest-ranking Black woman across the 32 front offices in the NFL. 

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Davidson, though, is just one of the women with high-profile roles who helped push the Buccaneers to Super Bowl 55. And as the NFL is expanding efforts to bring more qualified women into the league, Davidson and her colleagues are navigating the balance between being disruptors in a male-dominated industry and achieving results.

Tampa Bay reached the Super Bowl with the help of women in key positions.

“I feel like when I was when I was younger, I probably put too much pressure on myself to do everything perfectly and be this shining example, to not detrimentally impact anyone in the future,” Davidson told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “But that’s an insane thing to try to do, because it’s impossible. So I do embrace that responsibility, but I no longer carry it like it’s a burden. But it always has to be about the work. Always. Because that’s the one objective thing that you can leave behind.”

The Buccaneers, who are making their second Super Bowl appearance and will face the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, have become the paradigm for diversity in the NFL. Coach Bruce Arians has hired a staff where all four coordinators are Black.

Women, who had been a rarity in coaching, are also prominent. Lori Locust is the assistant defensive line coach. Maral Javadifar is the assistant strength and conditioning coach. Together, they are two of the only eight female assistant coaches in the NFL.

Carly Helfand is a scouting assistant. Stephanie Kolloff O’Neill serves as the director of performance nutrition. On the business administration side, five of the organization’s nine vice presidents are women: Christi Bedan (digital and media), Kristin Hamwey (human resources), Nikki Donofrio (marketing), Tara Battiato (community impact) and Amy Taylor (group sales).

This effort on inclusion and diversity is something that has trickled down from the highest levels of the organization, with Darcie Glazer Kassewitz serving as one of the team’s co-owners.Get the 4th and Monday newsletter in your inbox.

“To hear voices in a staff meeting that aren’t the same, don’t look alike, but they all have input — you get better output,” Arians said this week.

Davidson calls herself “Southern to the core” and is an only child born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She grew up watching Atlanta Braves games with her father and grandfather. Eventually, she played high school basketball. But in Tuscaloosa, it was football that linked the social fabric of the community.

When she was in elementary school, a corporate attorney from a nearby company spoke to her class. That speech was when Davidson decided she wanted to be a lawyer.

Years later, in what she jokingly called a “sad, but true story,” it was after she watched the movieJerry Maguire that she realized she wanted to work in sports.

She graduated from Davidson College in 2002 with an economics degree and three years later earned her law degree from the Cornell University School of Law. 

With the Bucs, she’s a trusted resource in contract negotiations with extensive experience in contract language and the salary cap. She uses analytics to advise general manager Jason Licht and the rest of the front office on roster management decisions. She also helps scout opponents, trying to reveal tendencies that can help the coaching staff as they craft their game plans.

“She is — as advertised — brilliant,” Licht said recently. 

Davidson first broke into the NFL as a legal intern in 2004 through the league’s Management Council. Three years after that, she took her first job with an NFL team, with the New York Jets. She spent eight and a half seasons as the manager of football administration before a promotion to director of football administration. 

It was in New York where Davidson met and worked closely with Mike Greenberg, the current Buccaneer director of football administration. She and Greenberg stayed in touch and talked constantly.

Greenberg, who has been with the Buccaneers for 11 seasons, pestered Licht about Davidson, telling him that she was the smartest person he worked with at the Jets. This summer, even though the Tampa Bay front office was basically complete, Licht made his pitch to Davidson.

“One of the things he said that really stuck with me is: ‘I just want to get good people in the building, and then we’ll figure out where to put them,’ ” Davidson said. “That was essentially what it felt like. Like: ‘We’re making this for you.’ It’s hard to say no to that, right? It’s it’s hard to turn that down.” 

Licht pointed to the contracts of running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Antonio Brown, two players whose contributions helped sustain Tampa Bay’s playoff run, as some of Davidson’s key contributions in her first season.

“I don’t know if we would have gotten those done without the work of Jackie and Mike,” Licht said. “We hired her because of her resume and what she brings. Hiring her made us a smarter organization immediately.”

The next step for Davidson, Locust, Javadifar and the rest of the women coaching and working in the NFL is for this experience to help them ascend. 

NFL senior director of diversity and inclusion Sam Rapoport told USA TODAY that “there’s no question Jackie’s in the pipeline and poised to become a general manager in the NFL soon.

Davidson, like anyone in her position would, hasn’t shied away from that eventual goal, to rise to the top of her profession. She stressed, however, that for right now, she’s focused on the work.

“I want to win a couple of Super Bowls,” Davidson said. “Starting with Sunday.

“But long term? I want to be remembered as someone who contributed to the game in some form or fashion, whether it’s for other people behind me or whether it’s leaving some kind of indelible mark on the game. What does that look like? I don’t know, I haven’t thought that far ahead. But I feel like you should always want to leave things better than you found them.”

Rapoport helped start the Women’s Careers in Football Forum in 2017. It helps women in entry level positions in college football connect with executives who can help advance their careers. This year’s forum will take place at the end of February and will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The objective is to flood the market with as many talented and qualified women so that teams will have a crop of candidates to pick from when they’re hiring.

“It’s inevitable,” Rapoport said. “We’ve already seen women starting at the entry levels, in intern roles, in temporary roles and ascending into roles like chief of staff, or assistant running backs coach. We’re already seeing the ascension. With the champions that we have in leadership positions in the NFL right now, this train isn’t slowing down.”