ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Amanda Ruller was 7 years old the first time she went to a football game; sitting with her dad, eating popcorn and looking out at the Saskatchewan Roughriders, she knew something wasn’t right.
“I looked around and I said, Dad, why isn’t there any girls playing? Or any girl coaches out there?” Ruller said. “And he looked at me and said, Amanda, you can do anything the boys can do.”
For Ruller, those words sparked a limitless pursuit to rise up as a woman in the sports industry. She went on to work for the Roughriders as an in-stadium game-day host and then became their first-ever female coach.
“Fast forward, I made it to the NFL as the first female coach for the Seattle Seahawks as the assistant running backs coach,” Ruller said.
Because for Ruller, it’s never been a straight shot to the top, but a winding road filled with contradictions: moments of joy tinged with frustration, grittiness born from fighting discrimination and a belief that no one should feel like they don’t belong, despite repeatedly being told that she’s not welcome.
“I have had people hate on me … I was at a football stadium and somebody spit on me, saying women shouldn’t coach,” Ruller said. “Now that’s a tough one. That should fire you up, because it did me.”
CWU seeks to increase the amount of women in its sport management program
Ruller shared her story with Central Washington University students Thursday at the annual Northwest Sport Management Summit, which aims to connect students interested in sports business, coaching or communication with industry professionals.
“I take this as an opportunity to make it easier for the next people going forward: the next women, the next anybody that wants to get into a sport or whatever it may be,” Ruller said.
Northwest Center for Sport director Sean Dahlin said they were thrilled to have Ruller as their keynote speaker to share her advice for sport management students, especially those who could look up to her as an example of how far women can go in the sports industry.
Dahlin said women make up about 35% of the sport management program at CWU. He said while that’s an improvement from previous years, he’s hoping events like this will encourage more women to join.
“It’s something I just think should happen; there’s no reason it shouldn’t,” Dahlin said. ” There’s been just a lot of tradition and history — that is wrong, in my opinion — and there are a lot more opportunities that are out there and so we want to show that.”
Representation matters, especially for women wanting to coach sports
Ruller said that kind of representation matters. She said strong female role models in sports, like Serena Williams, helped inspired her to get to where she is today.
“People always put these women down and say you can’t be — you’re too loud. You’re too masculine. You don’t belong here,” Ruller said. “And I took those women in and said I want to be just like you. I want to shake things up, because I belong here.”
Ruller has now become that person for other young women, like 24-year-old Rainey Harris, a masters degree student in her senior year of studying sport and athletic administration at CWU — and a future softball pitching coach.
“She is super, super encouraging and she’s a go getter and I think that it’s good for females in sport to see that even in like a male-dominated industry, she can make it,” Harris said.
Harris said while she’s faced her share of difficulties as a woman in sport, she tries to ignore the negativity and focus on doing what she loves. She said Ruller’s call for people to know their worth stuck with her.
“In sports, you can kind of get lost in things,” Harris said. “Comments eat you alive and just kind of being able to know your worth and who you are and what you can bring to the table is super important.”
The advice about knowing your worth also rang true for 21-year-old Lily Scott, a CWU undergraduate student majoring in sport management with a sport coaching specialization and a minor in exercise science. She’s also a long-time figure skater and future ice skating coach.
“It was really exciting to hear her say it’s okay to say no if you know that you’re worth more than this,” Scott said.
Growing up figure skating starting at 3 years old, Scott said the support of her coaches meant everything to her. She said her positive experiences with coaches is one of the reasons she wants to become an ice skating coach.
Scott said while it can be difficult being the only female in some of her sport management classes, she finds it more empowering than anything else.
“It’s been really exciting to look around and be like, I’m like one of the first in all these classes,” Scott said. “I’m just getting to like kind of pave the way and stand on my own.”
“If you really want something bad enough, find another way around.”
Ruller said every time she was told no, it pushed her to find another way. She went from being a little girl who just loved sports to a barrier-breaking athlete for her college track and field team, Saskatchewan’s Olympic lifting team and in the Legends Football League.
But when she went to break into coaching, she kept getting rejected despite a wealth of experience as an athlete and in the sports industry. With doors slammed in her face, Ruller decided to open her own window of opportunity.
To get her foot in the door with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Ruller started doing interviews with players, coaches and anybody else she could talk to for her Instagram, making connections and establishing herself as someone who knew what she was talking about.
Her moment came when she was at an event and the person who was supposed to be doing interviews got sick and wasn’t able to make it.
“And somebody says I saw this girl, Amanda, doing interviews. Do you think that she could do it?” Ruller said. “I said yes and I stood up on that stage and interviewed the Saskatchewan Roughriders and that’s how I got my first job as a CFL sports broadcaster.”
But before Ruller made it to the Seahawks, she had to do even more sports reporting, start her own business doing strength and conditioning and positional training for football athletes and volunteer herself to do data analytics for football operations.
“If you really want something bad enough, find another way around,” Ruller said.
It’s not about who you know; it’s about who knows you
One of the key themes of Ruller’s keynote speech was about the importance of relationships and reiterated, time and time again, how the connections she’s made with people across the industry have been instrumental to her success.
Ruller’s resume is lengthy and diverse, but she said that’s not what’s drawn people to offer her jobs or opportunities. It’s more often the fact that they remember her because she asked them questions about themselves, talking to them instead of asking them for a job.
Being yourself, Ruller said, might be a risk at times but it’s one that frequently pays off and leads people to places they never thought would be possible.
“Whenever you stand up for yourself and stand true to your convictions, not everyone’s going to align with that or like you, but that’s okay to me,” Ruller said. “I’m not here to be liked by everyone. I’m here to do what I want to do in life.”
Ruller encouraged students to reach out to people whose work they admire and tell them they’re appreciated, to seek out a mentor who can support them on their journey and when networking, talk to people about themselves instead of talking at them about yourself.
Additionally, she said it’s important to go to games, networking events or anywhere people in the sports industry are going to be to make those connections.
Ruller said people can set themselves apart by asking for extra work, creating a space for their voice on social media and having a personal philosophy that’s meaningful to them, one that they can come back to when they’re feeling discouraged.
“You have to go out there and get what you want. You have the potential to be great,” Ruller said. “You have the potential to be in this industry. Do not let anyone for one second tell you you’re not great.”
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