Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Ashley Lynn, New York Giants
Position: Director of Player Engagement
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How did you get your start in a career in football?
My father, Johnnie Lynn, played for eight years for the New York Jets from 1979 to 1986. After he retired from football, he decided to become a football coach and coached for over 20 years in the NFL.
At first, I didn't like football at all. I knew it took my dad away a lot, so I sort of had that sort of stance. But by the time I had gotten into high school, my dad was coaching with the New York Giants during the Jim Fassel era (1997-2003 as defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator), and I really wanted to be a ball boy. I thought it was cool and my brother, who was two years younger than me, was doing it. That position obviously wasn't open to me because of all the locker room time.
So I actually started babysitting for the players' kids. In the NFL, players move from place to place and it can be really hard to find someone who you trust to watch your kids. I started building a business off this in high school, and one player I babysat for was our fullback, Charles Way. During that time, he ended up getting injured and became the first director of player engagement for the Giants. So my senior year in high school, I begged and begged and begged him to let me have a summer internship, and he let me.
I came in and had a summer internship with the Giants, and I loved every minute of it. It really changed everything for me. It's hard as a player's kid or coach's kid to realize that there's any other life besides those, and during that time, I realized I really wanted to work in entertainment. I went to Hampton University and got a public relations degree, and I had an internship at MTV in college because I thought I wanted to work in music. After that, I said, "Absolutely not." I needed to be able to have human interaction and that wasn't it. So I got my master's degree in sports administration at Canisius College, and I was actually lucky enough that when I graduated, a position with the Giants opened up. Shortly after, I became the team's player engagement coordinator.
So what was your role as coordinator, and how has it expanded?
It was a lot of administrative work at first, and although we do help all players, we focus on transitioning our rookies into the NFL. There's a lot that goes with it like helping with financial literacy and continuing education. In the offseason, we actually meet with them every day about those things. I think in the beginning in 2007, I didn't want to push myself onto the players because being a female in this role, it was kind of hard to figure out how I was going to make an impact. I was also 22 or 23 years old and the same age as the players, so there's that element of what can I really teach them or are they going to even listen to me? I think I limited myself in that regard by not interacting as much as I should have as quickly as I should have. I will say that the Giants were awesome and gave me the access and resources I needed to help these players. Charles Way was still the director at the time, helping me, pushing me and trying to get me to do more things.
We also started expanding the department during that time. We did childcare on game day with the Lady Giants, our significant others group, and we expanded more into parenting classes, couple's nights, family days and we do so many other things now. You really have to be flexible every year to what the team needs at that time.
I have to ask about the pandemic, specifically the 2020 offseason and season. How were you able to navigate your role during that time?
It was super, super challenging. It was so hard to create good, trusting relationships through a screen, and it demanded a lot of Zoom time. It was especially hard for the rookies because they ran out onto the field in September living their dreams to zero fans. That's not really what they expected. Surprisingly, I am extremely close with that rookie class because we had to talk constantly over the phone and through Zoom about everything. There were pros and cons, but it definitely changed the game. I was also around for the lockout in 2011, which was another challenging time. Player engagement was one of the departments that could actually still communicate with the players because they needed help doing all of these things outside of the game. Life throws you curveballs and we've had to adjust.
What would you say is the most challenging part of your position?
Over the years, I've learned that I can't be everything to everyone. I really can't. Even though I am a major resource to a lot of these guys, I realize that sometimes I have to let go or find someone else like a position coach or Dr. Nohelani Lawrence, our director of wellness and clinical services, who is a great resource and has very good relationships with the players. Jessie Armstead, one of our former players, is around the facility all the time and he can serve as another great resource. It's about finding the right resource for the right person rather than me being that person for everyone. Toward the end of the season, I have around 100 players who I'm helping, so taking a step back was something I definitely had to learn.
When a player gets hurt or moved to injured reserve, do you have your hand in helping them with recovery?
Part of my job on game day -- and I should probably come up with a better name for this -- is player injury. Usually when a player gets injured, I will go down to the locker room and see what's happening. If he has a spouse, I'm able to call that person and maybe get them down to the X-ray room or hospital. I try to be as close as possible because the worst thing for a family member is waiting after you see your husband or whoever it is get hurt.
Then Dr. Nohelani Lawrence does her part as well. She's often down in the locker room, too, and we're there to help the player get whatever they need to help them move forward. They can be season-ending or career-ending injuries at times, and there's that element of depression for everyone in this circumstance, so helping players get therapists and other resources is important. That's a very real part of the sport, whether they are still playing or retired.
So when free agents sign with the team or players are traded during the season, do you jump in and help with that transition?
If a player leaves our team, I pass the baton to the player engagement director of the team they go to. Different than other departments, player engagement works together across the league because there's a human aspect. I will let the new team know if a player has any credits remaining to get his college degree so they can help him in that area. I also let them know of any personality traits and interests, things like that. I try to be hands-off once they leave, but it's hard to do that with players who have been with the Giants for years. I still have relationships with a lot of them. Then with players coming to the Giants, we jump in and help them with finding a house, getting kids into school, finding family doctors, all of that.
You really are an adulting encyclopedia.
(Laughs) I really am. You need a dog walker? I got you. Anything you need.
I love it! What would you say you're most proud of?
What I really love is making a difference in the lives of these players. It is so impactful because they are idolized by so many people. Their reach is so incredible that it's nice to help them find what they are passionate about outside of the game, whether that's an initiative or cause or an interest to pursue after they retire. The best part of my job is when a former player comes back, and he's so prideful about the second career he has discovered and is successful at.
Do you have any mentors who have influenced you along the way?
My parents, of course. We probably moved seven or eight times before I got to high school, and my mom really did the bulk of that. She is quite a bit younger than my dad, so when he was drafted, she wasn't able to finish her degree. There weren't online classes then and you basically just had to re-enroll each time, and sometimes you'd lose credits that didn't transfer from one school to another. She went through this process a lot when my dad coached. She did so much for our family, so she's a big one.
Also my dad, for teaching me about my job before I knew it was what I wanted to do. He wasn't just coaching players. He was a father figure and created passion in his players and led them on and off the field. I feel like I have an element of him in me for sure.
Tina Tuggle as well. She was the director of player engagement for the Tennessee Titans in 2007, and she has been an amazing mentor to me in helping me find my way. Being the same age as the players when I came in, she taught me to really be my authentic self. She'd tell me the players talk and listen to me because of who I am and what I know. It had nothing to do with whether I played football or not. It was incredible for me being in a position that had mostly men to see a Black woman who is exceptional at her job and had done this for years.
What would you say to a female who's considering a career in football?
This feels like a new area of focus for me. I have always wanted to see more women in these roles, and it's important to know that you don't always know the path to your dream. Keep knocking down doors and don't get discouraged. With COVID-19 protocols, it's definitely harder to get into the building because there are fewer internships and other opportunities, but we'll get back there. There are a million ways to get to where you want to go.