When Martha Firestone Ford decided it was time to let go of the Detroit Lions’ president as well as their general manager in early November, she did so swiftly and without apology.
“Earlier today, we informed Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew that they have been relieved of their responsibilities with the team,” said Ford in a statement. “We are very disappointed with the results of the season so far and believe a change in leadership was necessary.”
Ford was responding to her team’s disastrous 2015-2016 season, in which they’ve lost seven out of eight games thus far. In her statement, she made clear that her standards remain high. “We have no intention of giving up on this season,” she added. “We expect our team to compete.”
At age 90, the outspoken Ford is one of only two women who can claim sole ownership of a team in the National Football League: In addition to Ford, the Chicago Bears are owned by Virginia Halas McCaskey. Both inherited their teams from male family members, and each has a massive financial stake in their organization’s well-being.
But both also follow consistent personality patterns; they are outspoken, decisive, and not afraid to take on an industry that is so male-dominated that female reporters are still denied access to locker rooms.
In the early days of football, women were rarely allowed anywhere near the NFL’s sidelines, let alone boardrooms. It wasn’t until 1979, when Georgia Frontiere took over ownership of the Rams after her husband died unexpectedly, that the NFL got its first female team owner. At that time, Anchorman-style sexism was still very much a part of working women’s worlds. But Frontiere, who originally wanted to be an opera singer, didn’t shy away from it.
“She bristled at what she apparently perceived to be snickering from the news media and the football world at a woman running an N.F.L. team,” the New York Times wrote in Frontiere’s 2008 obituary. “‘There are some who feel there are two different kinds of people — human beings and women,’ she said at her first news conference.”
Soon after, Denise DeBartolo York gained control of the San Francisco 49ers. She originally shared the team in a 50-50 split with her brother, but when he proved incapable of capping his extravagant spending habits, York took over completely. She typically stays out of the public eye, but in a rare profile in 2000, the San Francisco Gate called York “an indelible part of the 49ers history.”
Many women in these top leadership positions at the NFL seem to channel the spirit of those who went before, like Frontiere. Ford, who is currently worth $1.38 billion, married into a family with similar values as those expressed by Frontiere’s detractors. In 2003, her cousin Charlotte Ford told the New York Times that her father Henry Ford II, “… was of the mind-set that women don’t belong in the business, that they should be housewives and take care of the children … Our generation never really participated in anything.”
Nevertheless, Martha’s husband — the late William Clay Ford Sr, grandson of Henry Ford — left the Lions to Martha. It’s a tough team to inherit; the Lions have never been to a Superbowl, and have only won one playoff game, ever. For that, Ford faces constant scrutiny, despite the fact that she only took the reigns last year. Fans and journalists routinely question her ability to run the team; following the firings of Lewand and Mayhew, Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote, “…the fact that 90-year-old Martha Ford … is making this decision after half a season has Lions fans spinning familiar questions: 1) Who’s really in charge of this franchise and 2) What, if anything, do they know about football?”
Sportswriter Kyle Meinke of Michigan Live wrote, “There is, I think, a skepticism throughout the fan base about Martha Firestone Ford’s ability to lead the Detroit Lions to prominence.”
Ford isn’t alone in staring down detractors. McCaskey has faced similar pushback. In 2010, when the Bears’ franchise was taking devastating financial losses, Forbes reporter Monte Burke wrote that “The problem begins and ends with the ownership…The team is controlled by 87-year-old Virginia McCaskey.”
McCaskey inherited the Bears from her father, George Halas, in 1983. While he left her a grand legacy, the Bears’ finances haven’t always been stellar. Writing about them in an article for the Chicago Sun-Times in January 2015, Jeff Davis, the author of Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas, told reporter Neil Hayes that the McCaskey’s “have been failures … It’s obvious.”
But Davis doesn’t stop there; he neglects to blame Virginia for the team’s fate, although not because of any perceived excellence in leadership. Davis suggested that McCaskey didn’t have much to do with the team’s day-to-day activities. “She gives the kids an allowance every year,” Davis told Hayes. “Other than that, she knows enough to root for the team, but she knows no details. She wasn’t supposed to know. She comes from the era when women had their place, and it was in the home and not the boardroom.”
Meanwhile, McCaskey recently made a similar cutthroat decision as Ford; in December of 2014, McCaskey fired Bears’ coach Mark Trestman and general manager Phil Emery. And in case her business acumen was still in question, according to Forbes, she’s worth $1.3 billion.
To say that female football team owners aren’t in a compromised position would be untrue. After all, the league is notorious for its lenient stance towards players accused of violence against women. Last year, running back Ray Rice (then playing for the Baltimore Ravens) was indicted for aggravated assault against his then-fiancé. Just four months later, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy (then playing for the Panthers) was found guilty of physically assaulting his girlfriend.
McCaskey faced a massive backlash earlier this year, after signing defensive end Ray McDonald while he was facing charges of sexual assault — charges for which he was dropped from the San Francisco 49ers.
But both Ford and McCaskey face their duties without flinching. After firing Lewand and Mayhew, Ford promptly brought on Rod Wood to serve as the team’s president, a man who has worked as a Ford family financial advisor since 2007. Comments on the Detroit Lions’ website about the hire range from “Nothing better than a little nepitism [sic].” to “Great. Someone who only cares about making money for the Fords. Prepare for another decade of mediocrity.”
It’s not all bad news though. Some fans are hopeful; “In Ford, Lions fans have an owner who is equally embarrassed and tired of losing,” wrote Forbes contributor Alana M. Glass earlier this month. “Her bold move has not added a check mark in the wins column – yet – but for now she has won the respect of Lions fans everywhere.”
Boldness seems to be the modus operandi for these two. Following the firing of Trestman and Emery, McCaskey’s son, George McCaskey, told the Chicago Tribune that his mother was not happy with the two men’s performances, which resulted, at the time, in eleven losses out of sixteen games played.
“She’s pissed off,” he said. “I can’t think of a 91-year-old woman that that description would apply, but in this case, I can’t think of a more accurate description.”
Or, as Fox News aptly put it in a recent headline, “Don’t Mess With the Women of the NFL.”