Theresa Therilus
R. Hawkins photography

Editor’s note: With this article we introduce a new column: My Thing Is, a place for The Root’s readers and contributors to reveal their personal narratives. Want to tell your story? Send pitches to MyThingIs@theroot.com.

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I’m a 5-foot-4, 130-pound woman who loves her stilettos and pastel suits—especially pink ones.

What do I know about football? A lot.

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As a longtime NFL agent and entertainment attorney, I’m as savvy as many of the 250-pounders on the field. And from my first Miami Dolphins game at the age of 9, where I sang to the fight song alongside my dad, to my trips to 23 of the 31 NFL stadiums, I’ve spent more time watching the sport than most people will in their lifetimes. 

Yet I still have to work to prove that I know even the basics. Shocking? Not really.

There’s a serious dearth of women, especially women of color, on the business side of the NFL. Yes, the league targets female fans through marketing of “Just for Her” NFL gear and the “Lingerie Football League.” But if you ask me, these efforts serve only to titillate the male football-fan population. Moreover, they display the league’s unwillingness to send a message that female fans can become any more than passive spectators of the sport, decked out in fitted jerseys designed to cling to their curves as much as to show their pride.

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All of this, combined with societywide sexism, translates to how much women with careers tied to the NFL are valued. It’s no wonder that cheerleaders are paid less than male mascots. It’s no wonder that each week, fans fixate on Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver’s hairstyle choices instead of on her work.

Even once I get past the assumption that I’m clueless and establish my NFL knowledge and qualifications (I’m a Harvard-educated lawyer with plenty of negotiation experience), I have been disappointed—though not surprised—when I’ve discovered that a potential client still held on to ulterior motives.

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One potential first-round draft pick brought to my office a signed representation agreement—a rare move by a player of his caliber, especially vis-à-vis an agent who was not part of one of the larger NFL agencies. Just as I was about to fax the agreement to the NFL Players Association, he said, “I’m going to sleep with you one day.”

It took a few long seconds, but I pressed the cancel button on the fax machine, scratching a multimillion-dollar deal and career-defining opportunity. As I handed him back the agreement, I replied, “Not in a million years.”

Seeing the expression on my face, he responded, “I don’t mean it like that. I’m just attracted to how well you know football.”

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In the same way that the NFL’s female-marketing initiatives have served only to titillate the male fan, my knowledge of football and my business acumen had seemingly served only to titillate this particular player. “The only reason to hire me is because I’m an excellent attorney and I understand this business. I will never sleep with you. Sorry, I cannot represent you.”

I walked away from a coveted client and kept my dignity.

I’m guessing that when Sheryl Sandberg wrote her feminist career manifesto, Lean In, this wasn’t the type of workplace dilemma she contemplated.

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I had better luck with Antwan Barnes, now a linebacker for the New York Jets, but I definitely had to do much more work than a man would have had to in order to gain his trust. “Defensive coordinator of the Jets in 2000? Who won the Super Bowl when linebacker Mike Jones made the game-saving tackle in the last few seconds?” He demanded a sort of trial by fire when I first signed him on. Like, how could this little lady in pink know anything about the game?

But when I calmly ticked off the answers to his questions, he shook his head in disbelief and nodded. “You really believe that you can be my agent?” he asked. “Get me into the NFL? I mean, you never played. You’re a girl.”

I knew it was coming, but I still had to take a long, deep breath before responding, “And you never played for the NFL, either. Right?” He sheepishly agreed, and I was ultimately able to rattle off enough facts, figures and insights to convince him that I knew the game and the business.

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But even when life as an agent was good, my personal life paid a price. As if we’re not already inundated with tales of how hard it is for professional black women to find love, imagine telling your boyfriend that your travel mate is a 250-pound professional athlete? It hasn’t always made for smooth relationships. And to be completely honest, it takes a lot of composure on my end to keep professional boundaries with a male athlete who has a body to die for.

All of this is partly why, in 2011, I changed paths to represent professional athletes as an NFL marketing agent in business affairs unrelated to their teams. While my race and gender still make me a minority in my new area, the distance from the football field itself and its accompanying culture has meant fewer biases to battle and much-needed peace of mind.

Being a woman compounds the pressure in this volatile, competitive business where you can be hired one day and fired the next. My career as an agent is about so much more than just prancing through the locker room in heels. I’ve given up on expecting that everyone will understand that, but I’ll never surrender my love for the game.

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Theresa Therilus is an attorney and NFL agent and the founder of TGT Sports & Marketing, LLC, which specializes in marketing and endorsements for professional athletes and artists. She is at work on a memoir of a life in football.