Former Ottawa GM Jo-Anne Polak: Catherine Raiche ‘combatting’ gender bias in NFL while making history

Former Ottawa general manager Jo-Anne Polak knows Catherine Raiche has what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

Polak was the Rough Riders GM from 1989 to 1991 and the first woman appointed to the position in North American pro sports. That was over 30 years ago when she was 29 years old — the same year Raiche was born.

The 32-year-old Raiche has been promoted to vice president of football operations by the Philadelphia Eagles. She’s become the highest ranking football operations female in NFL history. 

“She’s got such an intensity, and such a drive, and such a love for the sport, that she is already making them a better team. She’s got a great future ahead of her because she’s got a can-do attitude, she knows what she’s up against, but she loves football,” Polak said on 980 CJME’s The Green Zone.

“She’s a young woman, she’s got a lot of time ahead of her. I promise you she is not looking past the opportunity that is right in front of her. It’s like when you play football, you’re not going into a game looking at the next game you haven’t played yet.”

“She is completely and totally focused on this responsibility that she has and she will do a good job. If other things come, they will come, but she’s very young, she’s only 32 years old. It’s terrific mostly because of who she is, the kind of person she is, and what she’s done to get here.”

In her new role, Raiche will be involved in all areas of football operations and player personnel, including pro and college scouting, contract management, player and staff development, and football research. She previously served as the Eagles’ football operations and player personnel coordinator for the last two seasons.

“You can’t be in this business unless it’s your absolute passion. It has to be the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about when you go to bed at night,” Polak said.

“She loves it, she loved it from the time her mom was a GM and coaching her brother. She was on the sideline helping them out. She told me all about those stories. She loves football, she absolutely loves football.”

Before joining the Eagles, she spent five years in the Canadian Football League working for the Toronto Argonauts and the Montreal Alouettes, including holding the title of assistant general manager with the Als. She was hired by Jim Popp, then-Alouettes GM, as an unpaid intern in 2015.

“I was very lucky, back when she was with the Alouettes, when the Alouettes played in Ottawa, she and I spent some time together. We went out and we had a long, long lunch and talked for a long time — really got to know each other,” Polak said.

“I really got to hear her story from her and I also got to know first-hand what her personal passion is for football. It was an extraordinary time to spend with her, I’ve been following her ever since, and I’m so, so happy for her, but anybody who knows her is not surprised.”

Following the season, Popp offered her a paid job as coordinator of football administration. When Kavis Reed replaced Popp before the 2017 season, he promoted Raiche to assistant GM responsible for daily operations, managing the salary cap, determining the value of players and handling contractual duties.

“Catherine brings a skill to the game. This isn’t just somebody who wanted to be in football. She has a law degree, she understands what corporate law is all about, which is hugely important in the business of football,” Polak said.

“She went out and got her MBA in corporate tax law. This is not a woman, instead a person who brings a level of intelligence and a level of skill to the job that I would imagine is unmatched by a lot of her male peers.”

Raiche was the first female assistant general manager in the CFL since 1988 when Polak held that position with the Rough Riders. Polak was the first woman to hold the GM title with any pro sports franchise across North America. Raiche has gone on the record stating that her goal is to be a general manager one day.

“She brings a skill, she is great at it. If you want to be in sports, whether you’re a woman or a man, you have to bring a skill to that sport that they need and be better at it than anybody else, that’s what Catherine is all about,” Polak said.

“She’s been combatting that right from the very beginning. She and I talked about that a lot, to the point where you want to disappear and have people forget that you’re a woman. That’s when you feel like you’re really succeeding and you’re part of a team is when the whole gender thing becomes completely invisible.”

Raiche has a law degree from the University of Sherbrooke and was admitted to the Quebec Bar Association in 2012. She practised corporate and tax law for three years at the law firm Gascon & Associates but left to achieve her pro football dream, whether or not people believed she could do it.

“She also embraces the fact she’s in a different position and she knows there are other young women watching her the way she watched her heroes when she was a kid. You want to disappear, you want to block that out because the fact is there are more people rooting for her right now than there are wanting her to fail,” Polak said.

“She didn’t get to where she is by letting a lot of the noise of the people who are really making judgements based on a complete lack of understanding of who she is and what she brings to the team. She didn’t get to where she was by letting that kind of noise get into her head. She has already blocked all of that out.”

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