Katie Sowers represents something bigger for the NFL and its 100th anniversary.
After the San Francisco 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers to head to Super Bowl LIV, the offensive assistant coach made some history of her own as the first female and openly lesbian coach to go to a Super Bowl. The 49ers hired her in 2017 as a seasonal offensive assistant coach, followed by her big promotion last season.
Her story is inspiring: she grew up in Hesston, Kansas and was a basketball superstar in high school and college. After graduating from Goshen College in 2009, they rejected her from a volunteer assistant basketball coach position because of her sexual orientation. She played in the Women’s Football Alliance until 2016 and interned as a scout for the Atlanta Falcons for 4 years before joining the 49ers.
Even the players she coaches give her high praise. 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo pointed out her impact on the wide receivers, her specialty: “…what she does with the receivers, all the skill position guys, how she interacts with them. It’s special. She’s feisty, man. Katie is awesome out there. She’ll get after guys. … It’s fun to be around.”
In the grand scheme of the NFL, Sowers’ gender or sexual orientation doesn’t motivate her presence, but her astute knowledge of the game of football. She broke into the NFL through the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship in 2017 — established by the legendary 49ers head coach of the same name for hiring at least one coach who is a minority. Walsh came up with the concept in 1987 when he brought on minority coaches during the 49ers’ training camp. It appears fitting that Sowers makes history with the same franchise that Walsh concocted this progressive idea. Despite all of this, the NFL remains a league that cannot support women, and it’s astonishing how little the NFL has progressed for representation and tolerance of women and the LGBTQ community.
A small spotlight on the history of women in the NFL
Last August, the NFL Pro Hall of Fame debuted a “Women in the NFL” exhibit, focusing on the accomplishments from women in the last 5 years: Jen Welters (the 1st female NFL coach), Sarah Thomas (the 1st full-time female NFL referee), Beth Mowins (the 1st woman to broadcast a live NFL game), and Sowers. Unfortunately, the exhibit in Canton, OH isn’t there permanently, but a Women’s Football Hall of Fame exists, established in 2018. The establishment serves its purpose of displaying the overlooked history of women in football, which deserves its place of integration with the history of men’s football — the National Football League.
Sexism and maltreatment against NFL cheerleaders
Instead, the most notorious example of women and the NFL continues to be through its cheerleaders, a staple of all but 6 NFL franchises (Bills, Bears, Browns, Giants, Packers, and Steelers, in case anyone is curious about this trivia). It’s the NFL’s most visually direct form of misogyny and the male gaze for a game designed for men, inherently. Countless reports of groping and unwanted verbal comments from fans have led many cheerleaders to (anonymously) speak out, but they have made little progress on the NFL’s part. Certain rules cheerleaders must follow regarding physical appearance, promotion of the team they cheer for, compensation well below minimum wage, and even rules of “avoiding assault and rape to protect their reputation.”
Bailey Davis, a former New Orleans Saints cheerleader fired for violating social media rules from the Saints and then filed a complaint against the team, noted unequal practices for cheerleaders and Saints players, most notably leaving a restaurant if an NFL player is present. Her case showed the blatantly stereotypical roles of men and women in the NFL, one being paid millions to show off their athletic abilities and other dressed up scantily clad for titillating pleasure, faced under scrutiny for petty reasons. In 2019, a documentary telling the story of the exploitation of NFL cheerleaders debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. Two former cheerleaders, Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields from the Oakland Raiders and Maria Pinzone of the Buffalo Bills recall their fight for equal pay in A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, sparing no details about the NFL’s obsessive grooming of cheerleaders. The Raiders came to a $1.25 million settlement and the Bills discontinued their cheerleaders, but the attitude towards NFL cheerleaders remain.
“The NFL remains a league that cannot support women, and it’s astonishing how little the NFL has progressed for representation and tolerance of women and the LGBTQ community.”
The NFL’s dark history of domestic violence
There’s also the NFL’s horrific history of players committing domestic violence and its lax punishments of the offense. The Ray Rice incident of 2014 pressured NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to implement a punishment after a reputation of ignoring the issue, a whopping 2 whole game suspension. The punishment has increased to 6 games, but the NFL believes in second chances for its abusers. Just look at the two teams taking part in Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
The Kansas City Chiefs have WR Tyreek Hill, who in 2014 pled guilty to choking and abusing his girlfriend while at Oklahoma State, and audio being released documenting Hill breaking his 3-year-old son’s arm. The criminal investigation against him stopped, and the NFL declined to suspend him, yet he has a successful career as one of the Chiefs’ versatile offensive weapons. Authorities arrested Chiefs DE Frank Clark on 1st-degree domestic abuse charges while attending the University of Michigan (the charges dropped to 4th-degree disorderly conduct). Plenty of former Chiefs players, notably RB Kareem Hunt, have domestic violence connected to them. The 49ers aren’t innocent in this either, notoriously giving second and third chances to Reuben Foster in 2018, who repeatedly attacked his girlfriend.
Gay acceptance in the NFL
The NFL is a hyper-masculinized league that, unsurprisingly, has never had openly LGBTQ players play in the league. A handful have come out after their NFL careers ended, and in 2014, Michael Sam was the first openly gay player drafted, by the St. Louis Rams; they released him before the season began. Most recently, former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, who is openly gay, insisted that each NFL team has at least one closeted player on their roster. His comments reflect the cultural zeitgeist and the general understanding of the LGBTQ community in sports. Just 6 years ago, the last time the 49ers were in a Super Bowl, Chris Culliver, a cornerback for the 49ers, spewed anti-gay rhetoric by saying that no gay football players existed on his team ( “Can’t be with that sweet stuff” were his exact words) and that players should wait 10 years before coming out. Culliver’s opinion remains normal by many fans and players in the league, finding it hard to imagine a player in the NFL who wasn’t a heterosexual person. Most likely, it’s not the actual state of a different sexual orientation that instills fear in people in the NFL, it’s the backlash everyone involves faces, especially the LGBTQ players.
Katie Sowers exists in the same league that commits these atrocities, being a trailblazer for women willing to break the stereotypes and reputation of the NFL towards women. She’s also a huge figure for the LGBTQ community. For a sport plagued with issues of sexism, abuse, neglect, and mischaracterization, Sowers is an idol of sorts. She has the potential to be the first NFL head coach, hopefully within 5 or 10 years. Her place in NFL history gives power to the cheerleaders that fight continuously for equity and full respect for their services. Even if a person is a woman, LGBTQ, or both, they all have room in the NFL. If her team wins the Super Bowl next Sunday, it’ll not only be a victory for the 49ers, but for any girl or anyone that is LGBTQ that has the same dreams as Sowers.