-- Two months ago, Jen Welter made headlines when she became the first full-time coach in NFL history. The 37-year-old, who has a doctorate in psychology, spent the preseason as an intern with the Arizona Cardinals, coaching the team's linebackers. When the job ended two weeks ago, Welter continued making headlines -- for an entirely different reason.
News leaked that she had accepted an invitation from boxer Floyd Mayweather to travel to Las Vegas to accept an award at a Mayweather Promotions "Titans of the Trade," a breakfast held Saturday before the controversial fighter defeated Andre Berto in his final bout later that evening. Given Mayweather's history of battery and domestic violence, the story -- which Welter says was leaked by a member of her team, not Mayweather's -- created a firestorm.
On Monday, Welter talked about what her life has been like since July, specifically addressing the psychology around her decision to accept Mayweather's invitation.
How did the Cardinals' job come about?
I had to go out to Arizona for some other business, and so when I was there, I called [Cardinals coach] Bruce Arians and he asked me to come out to OTAs the next day. We had a great football conversation. It was actually a lot of stuff surrounding the game. He asked me about my dissertation [on the relationship between the Wonderlic test and the success of NFL quarterbacks] and my thoughts on the league today. ... After practice, he pulled me aside and he said, "I've heard you're phenomenal with the guys, I'm interested in your psychology." He said, "It's really in my heart to give you this internship, but I don't know if I can do it yet -- I'm going to have to get a lot of right 'yeses' to make this happen."
He said, "We're going to cause quite a ruckus if we can make this happen." And he added: "If you're willing to step into this madness with me, I'm going to try to make this happen."
There was lots of hand-wringing about how a woman would relate to an NFL player, so how was it for you?
I had a couple of things going for me, in terms of credibility. A lot of the guys watched my highlight reel before I went in, and they would tell me. It's a sign of respect, to take the time to look somebody up.
On the field, it was about knowing the field and giving them useful information, and taking the time to be one-on-one. When you can give them useful information, that works. And I had to make it very clear that they could be themselves around me. Could they joke with you, could they laugh, could they be themselves? Yes. And I would take extra time whether we were in meals or in the hallway to just talk to them, introduce myself, because I knew it was different. I wanted to be open with them if they had questions.
There were guys with tough situations and at times they would be like, "Is it true you have a doctorate in psychology?" And I would say, "Yup, I did the time. What's going on?" And those entry points, they might talk to me about anything. "I got in a fight with my girlfriend and I don't know what went wrong." And I would say, "OK, let me translate for you!" Some of the things were a lot bigger than that. One guy pulled me aside and he said that he wanted to talk about a situation he had been in and he said, "You can't judge me." And I said, "I don't judge anybody. I want you to tell me your own story." He said that early in his career he was accused of domestic violence. And he said, "But coach I didn't do it. I was on the verge, don't get me wrong, it was a heated situation, but I didn't hit her." I said, "OK." And he started talking about how the situation basically ruined his life, and that guys needed somebody like me to be able to talk to, because it's so scary.
The NFL has guys come in to camp and give the lecture on, 'If you do this crime, this will happen.' It was the rules, the law side of it, but there was none of the feeling side of it. And guys came up to me that day and we shared stories. ... And I told them about how I remember very distinctly a guy friend of mine [a retired player], who is a great name in football, who told me a story of a girl he was dating for a very short time, maybe a couple weeks. She demanded that he buy her a car. And when he told her that he was not going to buy her a car, she proceeded to say, "I am going to ruin your life," and punched herself in the face several times. [Welter was not aware how that incident resolved.]
It is a tough situation for these guys, because I have now quickly figured out that everything you do is in the spotlight and you don't know who you can trust, or if you can talk to anyone. I told all of my players, "If I can help you, I'll help you."
What was it about your coaching style, about you, that allowed you to connect with NFL players?
It was my emphasis on them as people beyond just players, because so often people see just what they can do on a football field. From an outside perspective, they forget that these are people. And often the people are very different than the player. I would really relate to them personally, not as commodities.
I wrote my guys notes and I left them in their lockers. I wouldn't have told anybody about that, but they told me how important it was because they said, "Coach, we've never had this before." And especially in training camp, it's very much a do-or-die situation, so for somebody to really care about them ... The notes weren't like, "You're my new BFF." They were about how to deal with pressure from the week, or motivational stuff they could do.
Right from the start, the internship had a deadline, but how did you feel when it actually ended and you weren't staying on?
I knew it had a time limit, and I had to reinforce that to a lot of people along the way. Of course there's hope, and some of the stuff that was published gave me even more hope. Other coaches saying they loved having me there and they were getting calls from other coaches around the league, or others saying there was no way that Bruce would let me go. Of course I had to hope. And I had to work, the whole time, as if I was staying. ...
Even seeing the guys on Sunday, they were saying, "I can't believe you're here -- we thought you were at the fight." I said, "I came from the fight as fast as I could to be here, and if I could have been here, there's nowhere else in the world I would have rather been."
You mention the fight. Were you anticipating the kind of blowback from accepting the invitation from Mayweather?
I knew it was a challenging situation personally, even in how I looked at it. I anticipated there might be some blowback, but not like that, no. I don't think there is any way that I can tell you, I mean, even in talking to Mayweather's team. ... They had a meeting about how hard everyone was being on me for accepting that invitation and that they'd never seen anything like it. And, Floyd's dad went out of his way to come and talk to me. He said, "I am so sorry for how hard everyone has been on you." He said, "That has been tough, but how you've responded and the fact you're here shows me exactly how you did something [coach in the NFL] that nobody else could do. He said, "We are all just so impressed by you being a strong, independent woman and following your beliefs, even to this." And he said, "I want you to know, as his daddy, that is my son behind me and he was so impressed by you and he wanted you here and it would have really broken his heart if you didn't come, because he saw you as the type of woman that should be in sports."
I didn't really get a chance to talk to Floyd, one-on-one, like I had hoped. He was actually kind of shy, but there were a million cameras around. But his dad and his manager talked to me for over an hour. He told me their whole story. I said, "Listen, here's my biggest concern." I said, "I've never been beat up like this in my whole life." And I do know the implication of those words, because I almost felt like I was being bullied at times. What, now I should not go to the fight after it had been announced? Then I stand for nothing. I made a decision, now I have to stand by it.
I said, "With Floyd transitioning now, if he's not fighting anymore, he needs me now more than ever. Because some guys don't do so well transitioning, having had a place where violence is accepted and then going to somewhere it isn't accepted. That concerns me."
I knew this personally. There is a different athlete persona than the one you that you embody in everyday life. I would say that my superhero self was Gridiron Girl and I would get applause for tackling people, but that Dr. Jen Welter had to live a different way. I couldn't run around tackling people, although it might be tempting at moments of life.
Several people around him said, "But you're talking about Money Mayweather -- that's his athlete persona. Floyd is a very different guy. And I thought that was interesting and I said, "Well, I'd like to talk to Floyd, not Money."
What did you gather was the distinction between Money and Floyd?
Money is the guy who is outspoken in the media. He is unapologetic. He is loud. But he also talks about how he went to jail and how nobody will let that go. He addresses all of the critics. But he still has that chip on his shoulder, that ego. But when you talk to his sisters or his team, they laugh because they're like, "Floyd is not that guy." And they're like, "He's very caring and understanding and why do you think he's had the same people around him for so long?"
It's typical in athletes that they're not the same off the field that they are on. In the ring and out are two very distinct things, at least you hope they are. The ones who get lost are the ones who have trouble separating, who can't transition from the violence in boxing to the violence in their life.
Did you ever feel The Money Team was manipulating you?
No. The award show was all women. And it's something they take a lot of pride in.
How has the last week affected you?
Oh, it was tough. It made me understand what my players go through more than anything. I knew it in theory. I knew everything they did was under a microscope. I would often empathize with them, but now, oh my gosh, it's probably one of the hardest weeks of my life, in terms of being a target and not even by just the media. It's been a fractured response from people I knew, as well. I had people threaten me. And a lot of very challenging things said. And yet, at the same time, throughout my whole career it's not been an easy road, so I guess it shouldn't surprise me that this wasn't easy, either. But it was much worse than I could have anticipated.
And yet at the same time the most powerful part of it is that while people have hated on Floyd for all those reasons [his brashness and criminal history] for a very long time, if you look at the dialogue surrounding the fight, I think you can see it brought up the issue [domestic violence] much more than ever before, probably because it was a woman at the fight. It shines a light on people. When those people mess up, it hurts us more deeply than anything. But we have an opportunity to channel that energy into something positive.
Are you concerned your actions appeared to condone Mayweather's violent past?
Absolutely. And I'm concerned because those would be people who didn't know me. They don't know my past. They don't know what I do outside of this. They just looked at a situation how they wanted to see it. But I looked at it as a situation of non-judgment. I don't believe you can help anyone from afar. And if I had come off any other way, I would have lost credibility with all of the guys that I've worked with in sports. You can't help that way. I talked to people in his camp and I said, "You guys need me. He's going to need me." And they said, "Well, you're a strong lady, you can handle it because you showed up. Most people wouldn't show up."
Are you going to be affiliated with The Money Team in any official capacity?
I have no idea. I talked to a couple of people there about things he might need. But there were no talks about any official things. He's getting out of fighting, so it becomes more life stuff, and you might need a doctor to help with the psychology aspect of things. But it wasn't anything official. It was an award and tickets to the fight.
You've said you were worried about losing credibility with the guys you've coached, does it concern you that you've lost credibility with women?
Of course it does. I'm a woman first and foremost. I am pro-women. I would ask you talk to any of the women I played with. A lot of them supported the decision I made. I work for a recovery shelter in Dallas; it's called the 24-Hour Club. I've spoken at kids' drop-in centers. And I've had a very hard road myself, but ... it's hard to make decisions based on who might take it the wrong way. You have to make decisions based on character and consistency.
I hate the fact that women think I don't love women because I went to that fight, or that I don't support women because I went to the fight. It makes me wonder if they have that same opinion of any woman who's ever watched a Mayweather fight, because that's really hard on me. I don't think as human beings we have the right to judge people we don't know -- man or woman.
We have women who have been accused of domestic violence, too. Should we not -- I mean, I would talk to Hope Solo, too. Because she's a woman who maybe had a potential situation, would I then be in the right or in the wrong? I don't know. Those boundaries become so blurred.
Do you consider yourself a feminist, which I'm imagining is a difficult self-definition within the NFL world?
It is. And it's a confusing term. I think, I'm pro-greatness, whether you're a woman or a man. And I don't think your greatness should be determined by your gender or any other factor. Do I think every woman should have every opportunity to be great? I absolutely do. I look at those things about how good you are, not how you are born. I'm the first person who wants every woman to shine. You can't take just this to form your opinion about my entire life, every little girl I've ever spoke to and girls' games I've gone to. Consistent things I've done for years and years. To have people say, 'You don't love and support women' -- it's the worst thing I can hear.
If you could rewind two weeks would you do anything different?
[Long pause.] Yes. I'd still be coaching the Arizona Cardinals, and this wouldn't have been a choice. It just wouldn't have been a choice.
But things in your control, would you change anything in your control?
I didn't foresee how much it would increase the dialogue regarding domestic violence, and I think what I would have done was find a charity. I would have done something more proactive for domestic violence causes to take the energy and conversation and direct it where it needs to be. I would have taken the energy people used to talk about my decision and I would have channeled it in a way to help people. I didn't have enough foresight to realize this.
I didn't realize, honestly, that I was that important, I guess. I didn't realize -- and I've talked to my athletes about this in theory -- I didn't realize every decision I make from now on has wider implications. People have to remember this is brand new to me. I've been doing consistent things for 15 years, the charity work and football. And until very recently, not everything I did was in the spotlight. It's a place a lot of people want to be, but they don't realize how hard it is. People would say all the time to me, players and Cardinals staff during training camp, they would say, 'Jen, you're in the bubble, it's OK.' But when I was no longer with the team, I was no longer in the bubble. It's a life lesson. I can only hope that the good that I do far outweighs any decisions people feel question marks about.
A lot of people wanted to be very mad at me, and break my character down, but what kind of person does that make you? I got threatening phone calls and texts at the fight -- We see you there! Part of me wanted to run away and hide, but that's not an option anymore.
But no matter what, you still would have gone to the fight?
I can't not have gone to the fight. Because what other people don't see is that there are so many guys, players, who believe I wouldn't give up on them. And I couldn't be seen to not be consistent. As many people who were upset at me going, there would have been at me not going. A lot of people targeted me as anti-woman because I went to the fight. But if you knew me beyond this decision, you'd know there is a whole lot more. We all have a past. I've been misjudged as an athlete, and I know it personally. One day I'll come clean and tell my whole story and then they won't have any doubt about how I feel about domestic violence.