Law Alum, Cincinnati Bengals EVP Katie Blackburn featured in Cincinnati Enquirer Profile
BOCA RATON, Florida – In the annual National Football League meetings at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, which sits just off Lake Boca Raton, league coaches and executives conducted various forms of league business, from the consideration and institution of new rules to larger-scale topics such as the placement of a franchise in Europe.
When these topics are discussed formally within the offset meeting rooms inside the 90-year-old hotel, the talks come in the form of the league’s four labor committees, six football operations committees, seven finance committees and nine business committees.
The Cincinnati Bengals are represented within five of those groups. Owner and president Mike Brown sits on the management council executive committee for labor, while executive vice president Katie Blackburn is the chairwoman of the eight-person workplace diversity committee and the Super Bowl advisory committee. She also sits on the CBA player benefit plans committee. Vice president Troy Blackburn sits on the employee benefits committee.
The membership with those miniature associations may not seem that momentous on the surface in 2016, especially for Katie Blackburn. She is not the only woman in these groups – Dallas’ Charlotte Anderson (chair of the NFL Foundation and conduct), Cleveland’s Dee Haslam (legislative and conduct), Tennessee’s Jenneen Kaufman (employee benefits committee), Buffalo’s Kim Pegula (Super Bowl advisory, NFL Foundation) and Denise DeBartolo-York (Hall of Fame) all have prominent roles.
But, Blackburn’s role as chairwoman of two very important committees isn’t to be overlooked.“While I was in the league, I served on several committees, and it was quite apparent to me that the league puts considerable thought into who chairs its committees,” said Amy Trask, an NFL analyst for CBS Sports who was the first woman to be named chief executive officer of a franchise when she took that position in Oakland in 1997.
“Committees are very important within the structure of the league. And I don’t believe that the league would appoint as chairperson someone in whom it didn’t have tremendous faith.”
And it is Blackburn’s role on the workplace diversity committee that has earned her more attention than usual over the last two months. It began when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl that the “Rooney rule,” in which at least one minority candidate must be interviewed for coaching and executive football positions, will also include women when it comes to openings in the league office.
According to an Enquirer profile in 2000, Blackburn became the first woman in NFL front offices to handle player contract negotiations, and her standing in the league has only grown in import since.“I think she is (an important voice),” said New York Giants owner John Mara, who is on the diversity committee.
“She does a great job heading up that committee. I think the diversity committee has made some great strides. The league has made some great strides over the last few years in terms of having a more diverse workforce, and I think she should get a lot credit for that.”
Blackburn has always been reticent to speak about herself, especially when the spotlight of league business turns her direction and highlights some pioneering aspects of her career. “No, I mean, I don’t look at it so much that way,” she told The Enquirer quietly in a foyer just off a breezeway at the resort. “I just view it as really trying to get people to do things that are in overall best interest of everyone. But I don’t like to think of it as pioneering because there are so many other people who have done way, so much more. I couldn’t even put myself in the same category.”
But make no mistake; she commands an important place in the league and is viewed that way in ownership circles.“I think she’s very respected around the league,” said Mara, who acknowledged that Brown remains active and vocal in league matters. “She’s been around long enough and has her own qualifications. She’s very bright. When she speaks, she’s always very articulate, very intelligent, so people know who she is and people respect her.” As for the inclusion of women as part of the Rooney Rule, Blackburn notes that it does not apply to each individual team – but it may serve each organization to think along those lines regardless.
“It’s a great best practice for every team to use because you’re going to look at a wider array of candidates and hopefully get a better person to fill any position that’s open,” she said. “So I think in the long run it does work best if people actually implement it. But I think it’s been put in front of people enough that people are doing wider searches and interviewing more diversely for openings, so I think they are doing it.”
With that, the conversation about her ended, and she smiled as she moved toward the elevator.But Blackburn’s role as the chair of such an important committee during a time when diversity and inclusion are at the forefront in many workplace discussions only indicates she will continue to be a strong presence within the league – even if her voice isn’t resonating publicly.
“Katie can be as important a voice as she chooses to be, and that’s entirely up to Katie – to state the obvious,” Trask said. “If Katie wishes to be a voice, she will be tremendous. If she opts not to, that’s her decision. “As Polonius said in Hamlet, he said to Laertes, ‘To thine own self be true,’ and Katie is going to make the decision that is best for her and the Bengals' franchise, as she should. Can she be a very important voice? Absolutely, positively. Whatever she chooses will be the right decision.”