Who’s Next? The Road to Gender Equality in NFL Coaching

Kathryn Smith being hired by the Bills serves as a great step in gender equality within professional football coaching, but we still have a long way to go. I explore which prominent female personalities in sports could be the most likely to make the jump to the sideline.

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Look past the players on the field, and you’ll find women in positions of power within the NFL. The gender ratio certainly warrants a double-take, but figures such as Amy Trask – CEO of the Oakland Raiders – and both Dawn Aponte and Katie Blackburn – each acting as an Executive Vice President of Operations for their respective teams – have demonstrated success at the highest levels of management.

When the conversation turns to gender equality on the field, talks of progress in quality nearly draw to a halt. Nearly.

A few months ago, Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan promoted Kathryn Smith to a special-teams quality-control role. With the move, she became the first full-time female coach in the history of the NFL.

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post

But whether Smith is a pioneer or an anomaly in the professional sports world remains to be seen.

Perhaps Jen Welter, a training camp and preseason football coach for the Arizona Cardinals last year, said it best.

Per the Monday Morning Quarterback, Welter said, “Why do I put myself out there like this? Well, football has often been referred to as the final frontier for women in sports, so for an NFL team to have brought a woman into the coaching ranks, that speaks volumes.”

Calling football the “final frontier for women in sports” is important here. In basketball, largely perceived as America’s second most popular sport, the WNBA currently hosts five female head coaches. Now, basketball has its own issues with gender equality, but having an outlet in the sport where nearly half of the hired head coaches are women is significant.

Volleyball, tennis, and soccer to respectively lesser degrees, are all represented well by female coaches – albeit largely in the women’s programs. Football is an entirely different animal. With no derivative of the sport dedicated to young women or a professional women’s league, it becomes incredibly difficult to breach social barriers in a male-dominated sport.

Welter’s tenure with the Cardinals, for instance, ended after her temporary assignment, and she has been out of the NFL in all capacities since then. Of course, Smith is inherently much more rooted in her position. But what’s to suggest this move to the “frontier for women’s sports” for her could evolve into something more? Where does the gender barrier stem from?

A brief survey of experiences and expectations doesn’t seem to suggest the problem starts with the players. Welter seemed to have a very positive reception within Arizona’s facility. Popular athletes such as Patrick Peterson tweeted their “warm welcomes” and there were multiple photos of her and the linebackers she worked with widely distributed among sports networks.

Many players gave positive answers when asked about a speculative future working under a female coach. “Man, it’s like if a person feels that she is the best for the game, with the knowledge to get the job done, who am I to say that she can’t because she is a female?” TCU’s Cameron White said.

“Guess what? If she gets hired and she is my coach, I will listen to her just like I would listen to a male.”

It was just the beginning of the favorable responses.

Chad Ward Jr. of Bryant University explained that he would give her the same, “utmost respect” that he would give to a male coach.

“She’s obviously good enough to be there and selected as a coach at the professional level,” he said.  “So why develop cognitive biases, or stereotypes that would or may hinder her from succeeding. I’d give her a fair shot. Coach me up!”

Craig Pettit of Wesley College indicated that he wouldn’t care about gender, stating that football is “a game of Xs and Os.”

It’s important because if the players are comfortable with a female coach, the bottom-up battle for gender equality here starts higher than many might think. And if such a brief survey truly is close to representative of a wider population of college athletes moving into the NFL, perhaps the barriers aren’t quite as daunting as they might have once seemed.

Welter started the conversation. The Bills further legitimized it by hiring Smith. With the backing of players and an ignition from management in place, who could be next?

For starters, the obvious: Jen Welters herself. She was already a temporary coach with the Cardinals – the experience was positive by most accounts, and it’s intriguing to simply take this as an experiment-gone-well scenario. Bruce Arians and the Cardinals tested the waters and they should be commended for it.

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 01: Training camp coach Jen Welter of the Arizona Cardinals participates in on-field drills during a team training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium on August 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, AZ – AUGUST 01: Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

But why stop there? Her experience as a linebacker in women’s and men’s semi-pro and professional leagues proves valuable, and the fact that her own experiences as an inside linebackers intern coach were positive with the Cardinals is just as crucial as the perceptions of those she worked with.

Another option might be Katie Blackburn, briefly mentioned at the beginning of the article. At this point, she’s well-ingrained in the operations side of football and has even told Jenny Vrentas of the MMQB that she prefers it that way. However, her own experiences dealing with management communications and player-negotiations behind the scenes have made her an apt choice for coaching, should she ever like to consider a new platform in the sport.

It’s been indicated multiple times that she and current head coach Marvin Lewis almost exclusively run the team. The time will likely come when she takes over all football operations as the team owner, but whether an opportunity to coach presents itself to her in the future is an interesting speculation.

Next, south Florida isn’t just big on football. It’s huge. That’s why Lakatriona Brunson made waves in major news outlets when she was hired as the first female head coach in the state of Florida by Miami Jackson.

Brunson brings extensive playing experience with the Miami Fury of the Independent Women’s Football League, according to USA Today. She also played basketball in college and is currently a physical education teacher. This hire came just months ago, so a move upwards likely wouldn’t come very soon. However, the tools and talent to coach were recognized and rewarded, something not often done. Now that she has a larger platform, more opportunities for climbing the ladder further could very well present themselves.

As said before, Florida loves its football. People will certainly be watching her progress. Success in the spotlight speaks volumes for upstart college football programs.

Finally, Sarah Thomas may sounds like an odd name to throw into this mix, mainly because all of her experience comes as a football official, not a coach. The two are by no means the same. In fact, the only similarities surround the rulebook. Yet, an innate knowledge of the game has to be there for both positions, which Thomas has clearly demonstrated.

There was an historic moment when Thomas and Welter met on the field of a preseason game last year, but a distant career path may lead the former to follow in the footsteps of the latter. In her time on the job, she’s showcased precision, consistency, and confidence making calls.  Part of being a coach in any position in the NFL is personality – and Thomas has all the traits of a coach in the making. Until then, her time as a referee will only enhance those decision-making skills.

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The conversation ultimately goes back to Kathryn Smith, simply because so much seems to hinge on her success in the newfound spotlight she has with the Bills.

“I believe that the biggest obstacle will be making the one-on-one personal connections!” said Coach Kurt Hines. Hines revived the football program at Bedford High School in New Hampshire, helping the team evolve into a Division I threat for the first time in the school’s history.

“Difficult, yet doable,” is what he had to say about Smith’s ability to be a pioneer coaching the sport. “It may be a long road, but I think the “next step” is simply going to be proof, patience, and time to see how players, other coaches, and fans respond.”

The scale of that acceptance will certainly play a significant role. Just five years ago, a female football coach seemed an almost alien concept. But if the recent hiring activity – alongside a strong push for liberal change, for women’s equal rights – suggests anything, it is that this is an adjustment people are pushing to see. The last year has been marked by enormous leaps and bounds. Right now, Smith is pioneering an opportunity never before seen and we’ll all be watching to gauge the future success of women in coaching roles. But all answers Blackburn gave Vrentas of the MMQB point to an ideal hope that this won’t always be the case.

“I don’t know that they have to look at me,” she said about women looking for opportunities in football. “But I certainly hope they have the confidence to pursue what they want to do. If it is in the football area, I hope there are teams out there willing to give them a chance.”

She’s broken through the gender stereotypes in football operations. Smith has proven that the sideline is a reachable goal. Brunson is taking the first step towards climbing the ladder.  Thomas is creating waves of her own.

Given time and given patience, others will follow.

 

*Author’s note: Excluding quoted sources, piece also corroborated by Christa Levitas of Locker Room Update, Kyle Phelps of Cincy Jungle, Malcolm Jenkins of Bethany College, and Corey Felton Jr. of Virginia University of Lynchburg.

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