Football is the last great frontier for women in sports, considering all other major athletic programs have female counterparts. Yet, football is not typically a sport open to women on the field or the sidelines.
On Aug. 17, 31-year-old Katie Sowers became the second coach hired full time in the NFL. Kathryn Smith and Jen Welter trail-blazed the path for Sowers when Smith became the first full-time coach for the Buffalo Bills last year. Welter was the first position coach in the NFL, interning with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.
Sowers interned with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 where she met Kyle Shanahan, who was, at that time, the team’s offensive coordinator, according to the Washington Post. He said he was impressed by Sowers’ abilities and knowledge. When Shanahan was hired as the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, he unhesitatingly hired Katie as an offensive assistant.
Rumors have gone around insinuating Sowers was hired because of her gender as opposed to her ability, but fellow coaches assure she was hired because of her ability.
“They hired her because of her knowledge,” JBU Athletic Director Robyn Daugherty said. “If this was a PR move, it would be all over the news. Tweets have gone out from the players that she knows her stuff. How cool is that, that they’ve hired her not because she is a female, but because she has the knowledge and skill set to do that job?”
While Sowers is breaking ground in the NFL, there are speculations about whether or not a true change will come about any time soon for women to have opportunities in high school or college football.
Daugherty, however, is hopeful. “[Athletics] is a male dominated world, but I think we have gotten past that,” she said. “Athletics is now more of a business. It is no longer about who you know, it is about your skill set. That has been a real help for women. While I am sure there are still issues out there, I have grown up in sports all my life, and it doesn’t bother me to be with a group of male Athletic Directors.”
Sowers’ personal goal is to help normalize women coaching football. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Sowers said, “The more normalized it is, the better it is. As a female, the more someone can ask me what I do, and I say ‘I coach football,’ the less shock on their faces will mean the better direction we are moving.”
However, some believe that roadblocks will always exist for women who want to coach—specifically roadblocks in their personal lives—which will keep women from ever being equal in the field of athletics.
“I am guessing it will continue to be a pretty male dominated profession just because a lot of women don’t play football,” JBU Women’s Soccer Head Coach, Kathleen Paulsen, said. “It is hard to have a family and be a coach, both male and female. It is a grind—you’re on the road, it’s a lot of weekend commitments. I know a lot of women who have stepped out of it because of that. That is the biggest reason you see a decline in female coaches.”
Sowers is not only breaking the glass ceiling, but she is also combating other stereotypes as the first openly LGBTQ+ coach in the league.
Sowers hopes this decision will provide a safer, more comfortable environment for other coaches and players in the realm of professional sports who might struggle with their sexual orientation.
According to the Washington Post, Executive Director of Athlete Ally Hudson Taylor said, “While we’ve seen a growing number of athletes come out over the past five years, we’ve failed to see that progress on the coaching front, which makes coach Sowers’ decision especially heartening. We’re hopeful that her announcement will open the door for other coaches to follow in her footsteps.”
Naturally, Sowers’ announcement sparked controversy. The response of sports enthusiasts and people in general over social media is mixed. “With Katie’s announcement, athletes around the league and throughout sport will have a better understanding of how their words and actions impact those around them, only furthering the effort to make sports inclusive and accessible for everyone — regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Taylor said.
Kind words and actions are Paulsen’s goal as she encourages the women’s soccer players to treat members on other teams who may identify as LGBTQ+ with grace and respect. “All people are people. My hope is that when people come into this place that they experience the love of God. They are athletes,” Paulsen said. “That’s the great thing about sports—there is a common ground. I would hope that our team could be a cool witness and good competitors and they would look different.”