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Coach Katie Sowers Wants to Solve the NFL’s Woman Problem

Macaela Mackenzie

When Katie Sowers was eight years old, she was obsessed with football. “It was seriously one of the most natural loves,” she says. But there was just one problem with her dream job: Girls couldn’t play. Football, she thought as she watched the pros, was only for boys.

As Sowers got older, her dream job shifted—she now wanted to be a professional coach—but the lack of female representation in pro sports didn’t. “I remember taking notes throughout high school and college—the things I liked about coaches, things I didn't like about coaches—because I knew that career path was always going to be for me,” Sowers says. “But for awhile I thought it was going to be [the WNBA] because I never saw a woman coach football. If you don't see it, you don't ever think about it happening.” More specifically, she’d never seen a woman coach any professional male team. None of the dozens of teams across the four major pro leagues in the U.S.—the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, or the MLB—had ever employed a full-time female coach.

Then came Becky Hammon, a former WNBA player who joined the coaching staff for the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. Suddenly the glass ceiling in coaching had been cracked.

“That was when it really clicked that, Oh my God, I could coach football,” Sowers says. She was coaching and even playing football (there is a women’s pro league) at the time, but the idea that a coaching job with the NFL could be within reach hadn’t registered yet. Hammon’s hire changed everything, Sowers says. “I posted something on Instagram saying, ‘NFL, I'm coming for you.’"

The Only Woman in the Room

Since Hammon started as a coach for the Sparks, the number of women breaking into big league coaching jobs has grown—slightly. In 2015 the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as a coaching intern. In 2016 the Arizona Coyotes hired Dawn Braid, the NHL’s first female coach. Also that year Kathryn Smith joined the coaching staff of the Buffalo Bills, making her the NFL’s first full-time female coach.

Sowers wasn’t far behind. In 2017 the job she’d been dreaming about since she was a kid—the one she thought girls couldn’t have—was hers. She became the second full-time female coach in the NFL, joining the organization as an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers.

“It's still somewhat unreal to me,” Sowers says. “I'm not doing anything to be ‘the first’ or even ‘the second’ or to be any type of headline; I'm doing it because this is my passion. I have a true passion for teaching everyone else that they can also follow their passion regardless of their gender, regardless of their race, regardless of who they are.”

This season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers added two full-time female coaches to its staff—a league record. The pattern looks promising, but the reality is the presence of female coaches in football is still shaky. Of the five women to ever coach in the NFL, Sowers, who is also the league’s first and only openly LGBTQ coach, is the only one to have lasted more than a single season.

“In my opinion it’s a societal issue; it’s not just an NFL issue,” Sowers says. “It’s this crazy power dynamic that we have with this society: We think that women are submissive to men. We fear the idea of femininity. We say, ‘Oh, you hit like a girl.’ I think the time is coming when we're going to see more and more people feeling that they can be authentic and be themselves.”

She’s looking forward to the day when she’s no longer asked how the guys on the team treat her as a woman leading men. Implication: Male pro athletes will not seriously respect a coach who’s a girl. “The truth is, women have been teaching men for years,” she says. “That's what coaching is—it’s leading people.”

The Future Is…Free of Gender Stereotypes

Sowers may just be one coach in the league, but seeing her on the sidelines is proof for the little girls out there: Football is for girls too. “I actually had to explain to my niece when she was three years old that boys also play football,” Sowers says with a laugh. “She thought that girls only played football because that's all she saw.”

Finding real equality in sports isn’t just about girls being able to try out for the football team. It’s also about boys being able to go to school wearing Megan Rapinoe jerseys without it being a thing, Sowers says. “It’s about knowing boys can look up to women. Men are not superior—it’s not about striving to be like a man. It’s about striving to be like whoever it is you want to be like regardless of their gender.”

When the next generation of future coaches is looking for a role model, girls—and boys—will want to be just like Coach Sowers.

Macaela MacKenzie is a senior editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram at @MacaelaMac and Twitter at @MacaelaMack.

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Originally Appeared on Glamour