In 1983 I became the “acting” GM of the Philadelphia Eagles, the only woman to ever hold that position and title. It has been rumored that another professional woman, Dawn Aponte will become the next GM of the Miami Dolphins. Bleacher Report’s, Michael Schottey, interviewed me and wrote the article that appears below. Weigh in and let me know what you think about whether a woman can be an effective GM in the NFL.
The Miami Dolphins have fired general manager Jeff Ireland, and it appears that Executive Vice President Dawn Aponte is positioned to take a step forward in the organization as either general manager or the person who will be making that hire.
Owner Stephen Ross finally made the move that many (including myself) had been advocating for some time. Ireland did not improve this team during his time at the helm. He did, however, create, nurture and allow a ton of controversy around him while presiding over a front office increasingly known as dysfunctional.
Speaking to a former NFL talent evaluator, Ireland’s biggest problem may have been completely unrelated to Xs and Os. The source with knowledge of the situation said that Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin were “barely on speaking terms.”
Ireland and the front office spent an incredible amount of money this offseason in backloaded contracts for top free agents. This meant that the Dolphins were in win-now mode. The coaching staff, however, didn’t always play along with that, and didn’t always give playing time to those highly paid acquisitions.
Multiple sources also pointed to the playing time of first-round draft pick defensive end Dion Jordan as being a reason for the friction. The front office brought Jordan in to be a dynamic playmaker but felt he wasn’t given a chance to shine on the team this season.
With the sense of the window closing having robbed Peter to pay Paul, things got tense as the losses piled up and the tension required people to choose sides. Sources confirmed that Ross backed Philbin—although many in the media felt that was clear in the cleanup after the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito scandal.
Said one league insider: “Jeff knew he was fighting for his job, so he went out and spent a bunch of money on—let’s say it—questionable players. It was time for a fresh start.” That same insider pointed to the swings and misses on coaching candidates, saying that Ireland would still have a job today if San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh were the Dolphins coach.
Aponte, as well, aligned herself with the winning side here—either inadvertently or by design. As one source put it: “She saw what was happening and asked: Should I go down with the ship?” Because of that, the sense is that she’ll be making the decision on who to hire as the next decision-maker.
Sadly, the implication there is that Aponte had to do something special or underhanded to work her way up in the NFL. That, however, is not the case…not even close.
The biggest knock on Aponte is that she’s not a talent evaluator. Experience, however, is not lacking in any way, and she is no shrinking violet.
Aponte has been with the Dolphins since 2010, joining the team after spending 2009 with the Cleveland Browns. Before the Browns, Aponte worked in the league offices for three years as the Vice President of Labor Finance. Those positions—plus 15-plus years in the New York Jets organization—have given Aponte more than enough clout and gravitas in meeting rooms where she has been known as the bad cop in the Dolphins organization.
From Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post via Pro Football Talk:
“Dawn will say ‘no’ when Jeff won’t,” a league source with knowledge of the team’s front office told Volin. “She doesn’t really have extemporaneous conversations. And she’s very ‘by the book’ with whatever stance the team has. But she’s done a fantastic job with making sure they’re one of the cap-healthiest teams in the NFL.”
Volin writes that Ireland routinely serves as the “good cop” and Aponte acts as the “bad cop” during contract talks.
Of course, with Aponte making the final decisions, fans will want to see her make a hire for someone with a talented eye for the game. As part of the Bill Parcells personnel tree and a former league employee, she’ll have plenty of connections toward that end.
According to the Palm Beach Post, candidates include in-house personnel guru Brian Gaine, as well as Philadelphia Eagles Director of Pro Personnel Tom Gamble, and former general managers Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum and Carl Peterson.
Susan Spencer was general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1983 to 1985. (Full disclosure: Spencer has also written for Bleacher Report.) Her father, Leonard Tose, owned the team, and Susan worked her way up as legal counsel and then vice president. Spencer told me that Aponte’s abilities—not only as a woman, but also as a lawyer and capologist—closely mirrored her own and laid out some of the challenges she’ll face.
“There wasn’t anything that I could touch that I didn’t get blamed for,” Spencer said. Later adding: “Today, I wouldn’t try to be a GM unless I had a talented group of football people around me—not lawyers, football people. You have to have a very tough skin. I’ll tell you what, I had a tougher skin when I was finished.”
Spencer talked about waiting hours after a game to avoid Philadelphia fans who would shout expletives, throw things or scratch up her car after a loss. “They didn’t blame the coach. They didn’t blame the players. It was always me.”
Aponte has spent decades in football, but Spencer explained that the football world is different for women. Spencer grew up in a football home and around coaches. Yet, as she describes her one-time role in the Eagles organization, she wasn’t often called upon for her football knowledge—even though the previous GM had just as much football playing experience (i.e. none).
“My voice was a very small voice. Coaches feel you don’t have the ability to evaluate talent unless you played the game. Most women don’t know it, because they don’t learn it growing up.
“Women are much better suited to be a CEO or a COO than having the title of a GM. The term GM denotes a hardcore football person. Now, plenty of males have been GMs and didn’t know anything about football and have been mediocre at best. Put a woman there, and she’ll be slammed for everything.
“Men don’t believe that women belong.”
That is part of what Aponte has to deal with as she presumably assumes control over the Dolphins. As mentioned, she’ll be looking to hire a scouting eye. Spencer pointed to the connections that scouts have to make, noting that even if Aponte has been in football, her relationships would be naturally different.
Ross can be the best owner in the world, but this franchise has suffered from a lack of leadership. One source who has worked with a variety of NFL front offices called Aponte one of the smartest people he had ever been around. Another called her “brilliant.” The onus will be on the two of these individuals and Philbin to complete the triumvirate of football operations.
If the Dolphins are going to be successful any time soon, it’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship, and actually repair the damage done. This is not necessarily a rebuilding team. It could be said that they were a couple plays away from being a playoff team.
To get it right, the Dolphins need to set themselves on the path to long-term success. That means a cohesive plan from the top on down. Aponte has the tools to be a huge part of that plan and the success that follows it.
With a fanbase eager to get back on top and the interesting dynamic of a woman in a position of power in a sports organization, there is little room for error.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted and attributed, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the author.