Until a few months ago, that name would have been known only to the most diehard Miami Dolphins fans. These days, as the team is in the midst of a general manager search, that name comes up on local sports-talk radio as frequently as that of coach Joe Philbin, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and owner Stephen Ross.
Who is this woman, who until recently had flown under the radar as she quietly but firmly knocked down gender barriers in NFL front offices from New York to Cleveland to Miami? And why has her role in the Dolphins’ power structure become such a hot-button issue that some say it is scaring away job candidates?
Dawn Marie DiFortuna-Aponte is the Dolphins’ vice president of football administration, the team’s chief contract negotiator, a salary-cap guru, a 42-year-old mother of four and no newcomer to the world of professional sports.
She is a 23-year veteran of the NFL, a Bill Parcells disciple, an accountant, an attorney and a lifelong sports nut who has been making tough decisions since playing second base for the softball team at Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls high school in Staten Island, N.Y. She is one of only two female vice presidents in the NFL. The other is Katie Blackburn of the Cincinnati Bengals, daughter of team owner Mike Brown.
Aponte’s NFL career began as a summer intern with the New York Jets accounting department while she was a student at the University of Delaware. Instead of soaking up the sun on the Jersey Shore with friends, she was soaking up the intricacies of NFL economics and falling in love with the business.
“I thought it would be so much cooler to be a bean counter for a professional football team,” Aponte told The New York Times in 2002. “Here, you saw how people could be creative. Everyone started out with the same salary-cap number, and each year, progressively, everyone was in a different situation. I enjoyed figuring out why they were where they were, as far as the way they structured the contracts, the way they paid them, how long the deals were.”
Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who hired Aponte, said Friday he was impressed with her intelligence, motivation and work ethic, as she was already a mother and moonlighting as a law student while working for the team. She has managed — with the help of husband, Kevin — to balance the NFL front office with motherhood and is said to be extremely involved with children Matthew, Madison, Caroline and Thomas. Kevin is a former high school history teacher who quit his job 10 years ago to be a stay-at-home dad.
“Every project I gave Dawn came back better, every idea she had was well thought out, her answer was never, ‘No,’ and I could never give her enough work,” Tannenbaum said. “It was a no-brainer to move her from accounting to the football side. The fact she was a woman may have given some people initial pause, but you spent 10 seconds with her and see how prepared she is. She’s the kind of person you want in the room if you want to win.”
After eight years, she was the Jets’ salary-cap analyst. Parcells, the Jets coach and general manager in the late 1990s, took Aponte under his wing and became her mentor. Aponte was instrumental in several key negotiations with the Jets and earned the nickname “Cap-Woman” from Sports Illustrated writer Peter King.
After 15 years with the Jets, she was hired away by the NFL office, where she spent three years serving on the league’s management council as the vice president of labor finance. Aponte represented the 32 clubs in dealings with the NFL Players Association on salary-cap and other labor-related matters.
“Dawn is a very well-respected executive in the league,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told the Miami Herald on Friday. “She has terrific experience, a deep understanding of salary-cap management and collective-bargaining negotiations, and a commitment to the NFL and [the] team she works for that is uncompromised.”
She has taken on more responsibilities of late, helping to guide the team through the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, and often prepares Philbin before media conferences, displaying her lawyerly protective nature.
But Aponte, who declined to be interviewed for this story, confided recently to people close to the Dolphins that any characterizations of her as a calculating power-hungry corporate climber are unjustified. She said she has no interest in the general manager job and does not want to be a talent evaluator. Ross insists the new GM will report to him, and yet there are those around the league who think Aponte’s power and influence would come into play.
“I have never seen Dawn looking out for selfish interests,” Goodell said. “She doesn’t overreach. She understands her skill set and what she should leave to others.”
ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt, who spent nine years as Green Bay Packers vice president when Aponte was with the Jets, described Aponte as “very professional, very knowledgeable and rigid.”
Over the years, he heard agents describe her as inflexible or too tough, but Brandt thought those were labels unfairly placed on her because she is female. “Most women who make it in the NFL are in marketing, public relations, community relations. Very few are on the football side, like Dawn, and I’m sure that hasn’t been easy.”
Goodell said he has spoken to Aponte about whether being a female executive in the testosterone-driven NFL is ever a problem.
“She doesn’t think that way,” he said. “She told me she has to prove herself every day, create value, and her gender is not an issue. She’s not afraid of anybody. She doesn’t back down. She is well prepared, thoughtful, intelligent and tough. In any business, you have people say they don’t want to report to someone else because of ego. I don’t think it’s a gender issue with her because she is so well-respected.”
In the Dolphins’ view, Aponte’s growing role should be a welcome arrangement for GM candidates. She takes a lot of the administrative work off their desk so they can focus solely on the business of football.
However, some outsiders view her rise through the organization as a power grab. Potential Dolphins targets — including finalist Ray Farmer — have shied away from the job because they couldn’t get a straight answer as to whom they would report to on certain matters, sources said.
One candidate went so far as to call it a “toxic job.”
Once a subordinate to Jeff Ireland, Aponte wrested free of his control and became an ally of Philbin’s and a confidante to Ross. During the 2013 season, the Miami Herald reported that Aponte relayed Ireland’s criticism of the coaching staff and play-calling back to Philbin, widening the divide between coach and general manager.
When Ross embarked on a fact-finding mission after the end of the season, Ireland wound up losing his job. Aponte and Philbin survived.
Some around the league are not surprised. They believe she played a similar role in the Browns’ dismissal of George Kokinis less than a year into his time as Cleveland's general manager. Aponte was the Browns’ vice president of football administration at the time, and an ally of then-coach Eric Mangini, who, like Philbin, won that internal power struggle. A source familiar with the situation in Cleveland said Aponte “can’t be trusted.”
Although that’s just one side of the story, it was repeated more than once in Mobile this week, where league power brokers met for the annual Senior Bowl. Farmer was there, too, and so it would not be at all surprising if he heard the same criticism.
Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel had nothing but praise for Aponte, using some of the same adjectives as others: intelligent, diligent, principled and “extremely qualified.”
Some who knew her in high school say they are not surprised Aponte has climbed the NFL ladder.
“Dawn was an amazing student athlete, a star softball player and swimmer for all four years of high school. It's no surprise to hear that she is a leader in the sports world,” said Notre Dame principal Kate Jaenicke, who attended the school with Aponte in the late 1980s.
Perhaps some GM candidates are uncomfortable working alongside a powerful woman. It is, after all, rare in the NFL for a woman to be as powerful as Aponte is.
But Tannenbaum said he asked one question when choosing employees: “Would this person walk on glass backwards to get to work? Dawn absolutely would. That, to me, is all that matters.”
Miami Herald sportswriters Armando Salguero and Adam H. Beasley contributed to this report.