Sunday football: It’s tradition. It’s American. It’s … decidedly dominated by men. Yet the narrative is shifting within NFL organizations like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have found that front office talent doesn’t always come in the form of retired players and coaches.
Lexington native Leslie Ladd, 27, is the only female in the Jaguars’ 15-person scouting department. She has never played a down of organized football, but the game has been a part of her life for longer than she can remember. The daughter of two University of Kentucky graduates, she never missed a Saturday game at Commonwealth Stadium growing up.
“That’s kind of where the passion started,” Ladd said.
Ladd attended boarding school at Culver Academy in Indiana before heading to the University of Georgia, a decision she admits was influenced by the Bulldogs’ football tradition. However, it wasn’t until landing an internship in the Houston Texans’ corporate development office during the summer between her sophomore and junior years that she got her first taste of working in the NFL.
“I had never really known professional sports being from Lexington and attending UGA, so it allowed me to see how things are run on this level, which is totally different,” she said.
Male or female, you have to put in the time and do the grunt work in this league. No one just immediately advances. It’s a fraternity and it’s close-knit, and once you have broken in, you are in, but getting to that point takes a lot of work.
The experience also helped her realize that while working around the game in any capacity would be great, her heart was on the football — as opposed to the corporate — side of the operation.
“Something clicked in me where I thought that I could do it as a career,” she said. “I loved it so much and was so passionate about it that I thought that I could really do it.”
‘Grunt work’ at UK
After earning her degree, Ladd sent letters to the scouting departments of every NFL team, as well as many college programs. Then-coach Joker Phillips allowed her to come aboard on a volunteer basis at Kentucky. Within a week, she was a paid employee.
Her initial responsibilities with the Wildcats were “anything and everything,” and included escorting potential recruits around campus for tours, helping to put together recruiting mail, organizing the director of recruiting’s office, and prepping for campus visits.
“Just very low level grunt work, but that’s what you have to do,” she said.
Roughly two months into the job, Phillips and his entire staff were let go. Ladd was one of a large number of employees left in limbo. As Coach Mark Stoops and his staff moved in, she took matters into her own hands by putting together a comprehensive recruiting binder in her own time. She compiled all of the information available on every recruit the previous staff had been in contact with and presented it to the new head coach on his second day in Lexington. Stoops ultimately kept her on staff.
She finished the season in Lexington before getting a call from Kyle O’Brien, then the director of college scouting for the Jaguars and currently the Detroit Lions’ vice president of player personnel, asking her to come down and interview for an open administrative position. After landing the job, she packed up and headed to northern Florida, where O’Brien became her mentor.
The learning curve has been steep. She recalls strolling out onto the field shortly after arriving in Jacksonville to watch minicamp drills and being told to move to a nearby tent.
‘You have to put in the time’
Most NFL front offices are populated with female employees, from some of the most powerful positions in administration, to finance, business, sales and communications. Women getting in on the football have been slower to arrive. In recent years, teams hired their first female assistant coaches, and the league employed its first female officials. There has still never been a female general manager in charge of personnel.
Dawn Aponte, who spent 25 years in the NFL and became one of the league’s most respected executives before leaving the Miami Dolphins’ organization last year, told NFL.com in 2016 that she always wondered why there weren’t more women in football.
“To this day, I still find it really mind-boggling to some extent that there aren’t more women because I don’t really feel that there are necessarily barriers that are up,” Aponte said. “I just feel like I don’t know if women are taking or trying to take this career path.”
Ladd says it helps to have no illusions about a fast track.
“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘this is going to be tough,’” Ladd recalled of the moment she was asked to leave the field. “Male or female, you have to put in the time and do the grunt work in this league. No one just immediately advances. It’s a fraternity and it’s close-knit, and once you have broken in, you are in, but getting to that point takes a lot of work.”
I am the low man on the totem pole. I am at the very bottom, but being on the totem pole at all means everything. It’s taken me four years, but now I am out on the field for practice and for workouts.
After years of grinding and a few promotions, she is finally “in” as the Jaguars’ coordinator of scouting administration, but is quick to point out how far she still has to go.
“I am the low man on the totem pole,” she said. “I am at the very bottom, but being on the totem pole at all means everything. It’s taken me four years, but now I am out on the field for practice and for workouts. I’m standing in the background not saying a peep and staying out of the way, but I am out there.”
Ladd’s role comes with a variety of responsibilities, namely serving as “right hand man” to Jacksonville director of player personnel Chris Polian. She helps assemble the advance scouting reports on Jacksonville’s opponents, which are distributed to the coaching staff on the Monday leading up to a game. She is currently overseeing the development of a software program to be used by the entire scouting department. When a free agent comes in for a workout, Ladd accompanies Polian to the practice field to observe before returning to his office to swap evaluations. Polian is quick to praise his deputy:
“Leslie has done a great job for the Jaguars and has grown tremendously in her role here,” he said. “She has been a very quick study with the unique ability to add ideas and improve how we do things while learning the NFL.”
Ladd will take another step forward this summer by taking part in the University of Virginia’s prestigious executive MBA program with the Jaguars as her sponsor.
“I just want to continue to grow in my role,” Ladd said. “There is still so much to learn, not just from and X’s and O’s perspective, but also from the aspect of managing people and personalities and operating in the unique workplace of professional football.”