The NFL’s Most Powerful Woman Nobody Talks About
Katie Blackburn prefers to operate behind the scenes in Cincinnati, but her impact on the league has been impossible to miss
You could call her the most powerful woman in the NFL whom nobody talks about, and she prefers it that way. Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the first woman to be a chief contract negotiator in the NFL, has been part of the front office in Cincinnati since 1991. It’s not unusual for children of NFL owners to be involved in the family business—she’s Mike Brown’s daughter—but in following her father’s path into football, Blackburn paved a new path for women.
More than ever, the NFL has been forced in recent years to answer questions about the role of women in the country’s most popular sports league. The scrutiny began with the league’s handling of domestic violence cases, during which the league admitted to not having enough female decision-makers at the table. Over the past few months, the NFL has extended the Rooney Rule to women for executive positions in the league office; it has seen Bills special teams quality control coach Kathryn Smith become the first full-time female coach; and it held a women’s career development symposium on the front end of this week’s owners’ meetings.
Blackburn was a panelist at the symposium, drawing on a quarter-century’s worth of experience in professional football. She prefers to operate behind the scenes, but as her father has taken steps back from the day-to-day responsibilities in Cincinnati, Blackburn is on her way to running the team.
VRENTAS: Let’s start with Roger Goodell’s announcement last month that the Rooney Rule will now be applied to women for executive positions in the league office. Do you think it will make an impact?
BLACKBURN: I’m not a fan of rules, per se, because I think it is common sense. The best practice is to hire a diverse group of candidates so that you hire the best person. I 100 percent agree on the theory behind it. If the league office has a rule, hopefully it will be a positive, and I think it will work very well. But I hope that, even without a rule, individual teams implement the same strategy and look for the best candidates and interview a broad array of people—women, men, different ethnicities. Having a diverse group of people brings more perspectives and hopefully allows you to make your organization even stronger.
VRENTAS: Since the rule doesn’t apply to teams at this time, is it first a question of getting more women in the pipeline, whether it be coaching or scouting, to bring up to higher-ranking roles?
BLACKBURN: If you look at where things are now, there are a lot more opportunities for women, and I absolutely expect it to continue to grow. There are more opportunities for women to get in today at NFL teams, because there are bigger marketing staffs, there is an IT department, there is data analytics, and obviously there are opportunities also in scouting or even coaching. The more opportunities women have to get in will give them more of an opportunity to grow into other positions.
VRENTAS: Your dad has spoken about his role changing, telling a local TV station in 2014 that you and head coach Marvin Lewis run the team now. How has your role grown over the past several years?
BLACKBURN: There are two parts to it. One, things have grown in terms of what all we are doing. For example, marketing is much bigger; we didn’t even have a marketing department in 1990 or whatever it was. As the business has grown, I have become more involved and played a bigger role in some of those areas and overseeing them. And on the other side of it with my dad, he is involved in everything still, but he steps back and counts on us to really carry the ball on most things these days.
VRENTAS: There really weren’t examples of other daughters of owners taking on a role like you have, becoming involved in contract negotiations and the football operations side. How did you make that happen?
BLACKBURN: I love football and the NFL, and I think that football is a great business. I love the competitive side of it. I like the business side of it. And it just ties those together, as well as being involved in the community. To me, it was just such a unique business because it has those three aspects. And let’s face it: going to a football game is fun. Watching football is fun. Being involved in that has always seemed like a great opportunity. And then there is the family history part. I am honored to play a part and carry on the lineage. That means something to me. I am honored that I can do that.
VRENTAS: In 25 years working in the NFL, what’s the most important lesson you have learned?
BLACKBURN: The one thing that I probably feel has been ingrained in me, and I believe in, is looking out for the best long-term interests of the team. I want the Bengals to be a successful organization 50 years into the future, and so I firmly believe in stepping back and looking at the steps and decisions we are making to make sure we are not doing something that will just be beneficial this year, but work well for many years to come.
VRENTAS: In your early days as a lead contract negotiator, did you ever feel as though you were treated differently because you’re a woman, or think the other side was waiting for you to “prove” yourself?
BLACKBURN: When you negotiate with player agents, they can frustrate pretty much anybody. You certainly can get frustrated. Things don’t always go perfectly, smoothly. But in fairness, surprisingly, I never felt as though somebody was like, this girl, what the heck is she doing? I honestly, and maybe surprisingly even when I think about it, never really had that impression of not being taken seriously or not having a legitimate conversation with somebody.
VRENTAS: Well, that’s refreshing to hear.
BLACKBURN: Well, who knows what they said behind my back. But they were always very professional when they dealt with me.
VRENTAS: Toughest contract negotiation you’ve been a part of?
BLACKBURN: I have to admit the only thing I am pleased with is that the system has changed so the draft pick signings are easier these days. It was always tough when you had a draft pick who was not reporting to training camp. It was a two-way lose, the player is missing camp and the team is not getting the player coached up, and it has bad media that surrounds it. I always thought those were the most difficult.
VRENTAS: Since you’ve taken the day-to-day reins, what are changes or the perspective you have brought to the table?
BLACKBURN: A lot of it comes down to communication and making sure there is the right communication between everyone who is involved. As the organization grows, you have to make some adjustments as you go along. I think we have tried to take a look at areas where, for whatever reason, there is room for improvement. You are always thinking, How can we do things better? We bring issues up for everyone to give input on and then hopefully make better judgments going forward as a result of making sure we are getting everyone’s thoughts.
VRENTAS: Speaking of issues to address, last season ended with another loss in the first round of the playoffs, and this one was an emotionally charged game against the rival Steelers in which some Bengals players lost their cool in the final minutes. How do you address that in the organization in order to move forward?
BLACKBURN: I do think you have to step back and look at the positives. We have a good team, a strong team, and it is always hard when the season ends, but the main thing is to go back and remind everybody of all the positives, and then you have to go forward and build on those.
VRENTAS: How much do the five straight first-round playoff exits wear on you?
BLACKBURN: Well, it is sure going to be great when we get that win. I am looking forward to that.
VRENTAS: You have also been very patient with both Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis. Why do you believe those two people can lead the Bengals over that hump and toward a championship?
BLACKBURN: Games are hard-fought. We have done so many good things. And we have such a good team, we have good leadership, and I am obviously hopeful that we can take those things and get that playoff win here. But yeah, it is hard work every year, and you can’t just assume it is going to happen again. You have to go back and do all the hard things you did last season, and even if you win you still have to go back and do it, too. That’s what the season is about.
VRENTAS: You are one of the most powerful women in the NFL, but you keep a low profile. Is that by choice?
BLACKBURN: Yes, it is. I am not one that is out there looking for the camera. It’s just not my preference.
VRENTAS: Do you feel like you are an example for women aspiring to roles in football operations?
BLACKBURN: I don’t know that they have to look at me, but I certainly hope they have the confidence to pursue what they want to do. If it is in the football area, I hope there are teams out there willing to give them a chance.
VRENTAS: As far as the goal of having a woman running an NFL franchise, are you confident that can and will happen?
BLACKBURN: I never like to presume what might happen in the future. Being presumptive doesn’t necessarily serve anyone well. But I am certainly, hopefully prepared if that comes to be, to be able to do it and make everyone proud. I guess I’d just say—I feel I’d be prepared to do that.
VRENTAS: You are one step away from doing so. How have you prepared for that opportunity?
BLACKBURN: I think it comes back to what I said earlier, in terms of making sure the decision you are making is one that is good for the long-term best interest of the corporation. I want the Bengals to be a successful team for many years to come.