Dr. Robin West Cuts Through Gender Bias in the NFL

Audio Description

As a five-year-old, a Gray's Anatomy book resting on her uncle’s desk captured Dr. Robin West's interest. Now, nearly two decades into her NFL career, Dr. West has blazed a trail as the first female head team physician. How did she reach this pinnacle, and what obstacles laid in her way? Dr. West discusses Title IX, the locker room, and leveling the playing field for all girls.


00:09 - 00:22

Hi, everyone, welcome to the Big Stage where we talk to top athletes, artists, entertainers, and change makers in these industries about their origins and their impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, Co-head of Sports and Entertainment at Bernstein.

00:28 - 01:01

Our guest today is certainly a change maker and leaving a lasting impact on many athletes' lives. She is the lead team physician for the Washington Nationals, director of sports medicine and head team physician for the NFL's Washington football team and the first woman to hold these positions in the NFL and MLB. She's an orthopedic surgeon and chairman of Inova Sports Medicine in Fairfax, Virginia. It's my pleasure to welcome Dr. Robin West to The Big Stage. Dr. West, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks so much for having me, Adam. Robin, I'm curious to know what set you down this amazing path.

01:01 - 01:25

What inspired you to become a doctor and why sports medicine? You know, I've always liked math and science, but when I was five years old, I remember my pediatrician. And I really, I really loved them. And I loved the way he interacted with me. And so that was my initial introduction to medicine. My parents are engineers, so I really have no medical expertise in my family. But my uncle is an anesthesiologist and I went to visit him in the summer.

01:25 - 01:56

And I remember I found this Grey's Anatomy book on his desk. And so I looked at that book and I started looking through it. This is really neat, actually. And so I asked my mom for Christmas for that Grey's Anatomy book when I was five years old. I still have the book. And so anyway, that was, that's what intrigued me in that age. Oh, that's amazing. I can't think of many other five year olds that were asking for that for Christmas. That's wonderful. Was there ever a point in your journey that you considered another career? No, I loved everything. I really loved taking care of people.

01:56 - 02:15

So I thought about other options, like physical therapy or something where I could help people physically. So I did think about that in college, but I always came back to medicine. And then once I got to medical school, I loved everything I did, but I always was drawn to surgery. I again, I'm a scientist and I like physics and I like mechanical things, so orthopedics

02:15 - 02:39

made a lot of sense to me. And that's why I ultimately chose to be an orthopedic surgeon. That's great. I have to tell you that this really resonates with me because I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon ever since I was three years old, my parents said, and made it all the way to medical school and then took a sharp left turn. It's inspiring to hear this story. Dr. James Bradley, who I'm told is a mentor of yours, once said you have the sports medicine gene.

02:39 - 02:53

And the example he gave is that when a crisis hits, you have the ability to slow down and think in the moment when everyone else is losing it. Describe that process of slowing down in chaos and how you developed it. You know, I think that slowing down process

02:53 - 03:23

and that sports gene is innate. It's something that you're born with. It's hard to teach also. I've taught hundreds of residents in orthopedic surgery and fellows and then a lot of training and not everyone has it. And it's certainly a very hard thing to learn. But I think I've always had it. And it's something that comes naturally to me. But it's important, especially when you're in surgery, if there's a complication or something's not available, you know, you have an instrument that you expect to be there on the table and it's not there, and you have to to wing it, right. And try and figure out what's going to work.

03:23 - 03:56

Same thing in sports and same thing being on the field. When we're on the football field and there's an injury and we're going out and we have to make quick decisions. You're in the spotlight, the heat of the game and all the testosterone and all the stuff going, right. But you've got to slow down and just think about what you're there for. You're there to take care of the patient, of the player. Is there a surgery, an injury, a sports moment that stands out in your mind as to something that will never leave you? Oh, gosh, there are certainly a lot. I mean, I've been in the NFL for 18 years. The one that's most recent that really has hit me hard was obviously the Alex Smith injury.

03:56 - 04:23

And that's been written about and that's been the past two years of my life and his life, too. But, you know, we've been been working. That's an amazing story, too. I know it's been well publicized and I think there's a whole documentary on ESPN about it. But that's amazing to know that you've gotten him from where that injury went to, to where he is today. We had a great conversation last month with Olympian WNBA team owner and author Ginny Gilder about Title IX and women blazing the trail in sports.

04:23 - 04:46

I'm interested in your perspective here. What impact do you think your presence has made in the male-dominated world of professional sports? And maybe what are some of the tangible, and intangible changes you've witnessed over the past 15, 18 years that you've been involved? Yeah, you know, I really I started in the NFL in 2002, and so it's really changed a lot. I think coming into it,

04:46 - 05:21

there was only one other orthopedic surgeon in the league,  Leanne Kerl, she works for the Baltimore Ravens. And Leanne and I were the only women in the league and there was only one female athletic trainer. So there were not many women to have as role models or to work with. And I remember many years spending in the locker room, changing into my game day clothes and not having a place for women. And I had two babies, trying to pump milk in the locker room. There's a lot of things that have changed. So now we have our separate locker room. This year was the first year that has been mandated, so those are the tangible things. The intangible things are

05:21 - 05:38

you know, I've never really people always asked me, hey, how do the athletes treat you as a woman? I actually find that they treat me probably better than my male colleagues. I think that many of them have... their mothers are strong role models to them. Their mothers are often single mothers who raised them on their own and working multiple jobs.

05:38 - 06:04

So I actually find that to be the opposite, that the male athletes often seek me out or seek out my opinion on things. But I do think that the coaches and GMs and owners have gotten more accustomed to having women around and having that voice and maybe listening to their opinion. Even though we have never had an opportunity to play professional football, we have opinions that can help. And especially on the medical side, obviously. While we continue to see those tremendous breakthroughs for women in professional sports,

06:05 - 06:20

Sarah Thomas was the first woman to referee a Super Bowl earlier this month. Pretty momentous that the first woman referee in a Super Bowl. And obviously there's numerous women coaching in the NBA and NFL. What would you like to see happen next for women in sports?

06:20 - 06:37

I've always been a believer in equal opportunity. So but you also have to pick the right person for the job. I don't think somebody should be given the job because they meet a certain criteria that you're looking for. So I would never want to be selected as a woman because, oh, you're a woman and let's pick you for the job. You want to be selected because you're the best.

06:38 - 06:58

But what we have to do is give that opportunity to people early on, because not everyone has that right. And so early on giving people opportunity and showing them what's available, what they can do. I've always like to try and be a role model for boys and girls and say, hey, listen, you can do what you want to do. You just have to follow certain paths and make the right decisions.

06:58 - 07:27

Have high integrity and strong work ethic, that can help you. That's great. Well, on that, in that vein, for anyone considering a similar career path to you, what advice would you give? I would say to step out of your comfort zone. We always feel so comfortable being as we are. But I think I've had my opportunities by stepping out of the comfort zone and taking opportunities and challenges that I've met, that have met me. I think that these people always say, oh, it's so cool that you're in the NFL, so cool that you work in the MLB. Yeah, that's really cool.

07:27 - 07:40

I'm going to do that, too. That's what I want to do. It's fine. It's great. But it wasn't just I showed up and I got selected. You know, it's a crossroads of an opportunity and hard work. And so you have to be there.

07:40 - 08:15

You have to have worked hard and to get there and then you have an opportunity and you've got to take a chance on that. So really stepping out of your comfort zone every chance you get. In your work, you've played a role in helping to guide the health and safety conversations for professional athletes in general. When that trickles down to colleges and high school and youth sports, it's obviously quite the impact. Can you share with us any example of where your expertise has made a lasting impact like this? You know, I think my expertise lies in building teams and putting together working collaboratively with teams. So I'm the orthopedic surgeon and I can come and do your surgery.

08:15 - 08:34

I'm not the one to specialize in your rehabilitation, your performance, injury prevention. But together, as we work as a team and we collaborate, that's how we can provide the best care to our patients and our athletes. So that's where I think that my expertise has helped. And I hope that we can keep moving forward with that and offering that at all levels, not not just at the professional level.

08:34 - 09:08

Right. Well, for those of us who follow the health and safety through professional sports like I do, it certainly has left a lasting impact. I'm curious if you've put any thought into this question. What do you want your legacy to be? Well, I think first and foremost, I want to be remembered as a great mother and wife and an orthopedic surgeon. I want people to remember me for my fortitude and my integrity and really my determination to provide great care for my patients. When I was five years old, that was initially what I wanted to do. I want to take care of patients. I want to take care of families and everybody of all ages.

09:09 - 09:25

Seems like you're well down that path for sure. I always like to ask our guests outside of the work that they're doing, right. Many athletes and entertainers, you know, perhaps unlike you, are not fully dedicated to helping people every single day. Their crafts are certainly different than yours.

09:25 - 09:58

But I'm curious, outside of your work, if there is any causes, nonprofits, things that you're passionate about, that you get involved in. Yeah, I have a lot of different opportunities. Obviously, they always seem to come around sports are again, BLM and my role is as a woman, I get asked a lot to speak to youth, to junior high school kids and giving them an opportunity and going into DC and working with underprivileged kids. And so that's where I'm passionate about. And again, as we talk about that opportunity, trying to get them an opportunity to get out of where they are and to pursue their dreams.

09:59 - 10:19

So I have to ask a sort of a sillier question. You know, someone who's mired in the sports world, do you have a favorite game, a favorite moment, a favorite touchdown, or something like that that sticks in your mind? Oh gosh, there are so many. You know, I was with the Steelers for eleven years before coming and working with Washington football team. We had so much success there. Right.

10:19 - 10:45

We went to three Super Bowls. And often it's not just the wins that I remember well, it's the losses too. It's sort of those hard times that really stick in my brain, because it's really where you go from there and what you take from that loss. So I think that those stick with me the most. We're going to wrap there. So, Dr. West, thank you so much for taking the time. It was a really wonderful conversation. Thank you all for listening. This has been The Big Stage.

10:45 - 11:11

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Adam Sansiveri
Senior Managing Director

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