Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

The Game Changer

Chatelaine / December 2023

London, Ont.’s Carly Fennell is slowly making NFL football a safer game—one tackle at a time

In the summer of 2022, a group of women gathered in Brooklyn to discuss the science of athletic performance. The Women in Sports Data Symposium’s panel comprised two directors of performance science, one from the Detroit Tigers and another from the Los Angeles Dodgers; the performance-data analyst from the Indiana Pacers; and, in what her industry might call a trick play, the senior director of health and safety data management at the NFL, Carly Fennell—a 38-year-old based in London, Ont.

Currently on mat leave, Fennell is most often found these days walking her newborn daughter and her rescue dog, Lenny, around the park. But when this tired mom’s phone rings, it could be NFL bigwigs calling for her thoughts on very tall orders: How can football be made safer for players? How can the league prevent injuries before they happen? When and how should the rule book be tweaked to protect the game’s integrity and appease diehard sports fans who resist change?

Fennell’s methodical take was on full display in a talk she gave in 2022 at her alma mater, the University of Guelph, about women in sports analytics. Typical of a data scientist, Fennell had charted her career trajectory (“graduate biological engineering,” “masters in mechanical engineering”) and her life’s milestones (“travel across Canada,” “become a parent”) into a graph. She organized those moments by her confidence level at the time; the further south on the graph an accomplishment landed, the more clueless she felt. But “that sometimes paralyzing feeling just means you’re in a high-intensity growth period,” she tells me.

Fennell almost scrolled right by the job listing that brought her to the NFL in 2021. She’s Canadian, first of all, and was unwilling to relocate to New York City with her then-two-year-old son, Arthur; at the time, she and her husband, Mike, had just moved back to Ontario from Vancouver. And the odds were against her. Fennell was already a rarity as a woman in STEM, and rarer still are STEM women in sports. Her resumé includes a three-month bootcamp at Vancouver coding school Lighthouse Labs and experience working as a data scientist for product development and customer experience at Lululemon, where her data research about types of fabrics and materials are the reason your yoga pants feel so, so good.

As much as Fennell loves sports, she also loves athletic gear—a lot. “I just love sneakers…the look of them, the smell, everything,” she tells me. “I’m wearing Jordans right now.” She estimates that she has owned 100 pairs over the years, and with each one came an increasing fascination with their design. Intent on turning her passion into her profession, Fennell cold-emailed her resumé to Matt Nurse, the director of Nike’s Sport Research Lab in 2014. He wrote back praising her determination.

While she didn’t end up landing a job with Nike, Fennell fell in love with data and statistics at Wiivv Wearables (now FitMyFoot), a Vancouver-based startup for which she built 3-D custom soles as a senior biomechanical engineer and research lead. Where many of us see boring spreadsheets, she sees numbers that can be manipulated in meaningful ways to help people and even change lives. But as with all great loves, there were obstacles. “The gender data gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives humanity as almost exclusively male,” writes Caroline Criado Perez in Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, a favourite non-fiction book of Fennell’s. Women’s shoes, she learned, were often designed for (slightly shrunken) male feet. So she formed an all-female team of footwear engineers at Wiivv.

That the NFL gig would somehow bring together all these scattered pieces of her resumé like a jigsaw puzzle was just enough to convince Fennell to press send on the application.

As it turns out, all the characteristics that Fennell had assumed made her an unlikely candidate were actually the traits the league was looking for. The status quo won’t ever budge if every room is filled with brains that think the exact same way—something the NFL is keenly aware of. “There are always benefits to having broader points of view and diversity of thinking,” says Paul Ballew, the NFL’s chief data and analytics officer. “The NFL was in the vanguard in terms of geographic diversity but not so much on gender diversity, so we’re happily welcoming more and more women. That she’s a Canadian woman is even better.”

David Beckerman, a data-management director for the NFL, recalls his first meeting with Fennell well. “She’d done a ton of homework into our data issues regarding player health and safety,” he says. “You’d think that on an initial meeting, a list of issues—I don’t want to call them complaints, so let’s say concerns—wouldn’t be a great start, but with Carly, it was, which tells you a lot about her personality.”

As of March 2021, Fennell and her team were tasked with systematically improving the data used by the league’s Health and Safety analytics groups. This data is pooled from all 32 NFL teams and provides the evidence that can lead to important safety changes to the game—think rule changes, equipment innovation and injury training strategies. But before these changes can be considered, “we do the unsexy, behind the scenes work to ensure that data can be trusted,” Fennell says.

These days, every twisted ankle or pulled hamstring at the NFL is an opportunity to know more: How and why did it happen? Was the surface grass or synthetic? What equipment were they wearing? Which cleats and which brand? For the latter, Fennell called her pals at Nike and had them install ID tags directly into players’ shoes. With the fullest picture possible, Fennell wants to be able to tell coaches, GMs, medical committees and athletic trainers which equipment is the best and safest for any given player or position.

That will all take time, naturally, but Fennell is always playing the long game. “Carly views everything as a marathon rather than a sprint,” says Ballew. “Even when things are complicated and hard to execute, I often see her stop, take a breath and look at the big picture.”

Those are words to live by whether you’re down in the last quarter on a football field or feeding a baby at 3 a.m., which Fennell has been doing a lot lately with her five-month-old daughter, Isabelle. She misses work, but she’s using her time on the bench wisely and indulging other passions, like hockey. “I’m actually a huge Leafs fan,” she says, “but don’t tell the NFL.”