Closing The Gap

Meet four women changing the face of NFL coaching

Assistant coach Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers looks on before the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 27, 2017.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images
Assistant coach Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers looks on before the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 27, 2017.

Women account for nearly half of the NFL's fan base, yet they make up just a third of league employees, according to CBS News. The league continues to be overwhelmingly male-dominated — there has never been a woman head coach or general manager of an NFL team.

But there are a few women working hard to break the sport's glass ceiling. In fact, at an NFL forum held earlier this year for women in sports, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera encouraged those women to keep pushing to make their football goals reality.

"There are jobs for women involved in the NFL and they're not on the outside, they're on the inside," CBS News reports him saying. "They're making decisions."

Below are four women who have forged their own paths on NFL coaching staffs:

Jennifer Welter

Jen Welter of the Arizona Cardinals watches from the sidelines during the pre-season NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 15, 2015.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images Sport
Jen Welter of the Arizona Cardinals watches from the sidelines during the pre-season NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 15, 2015.

In 2015, Jennifer Welter served as an intern for the Arizona Cardinals, working six weeks over the summer as an assistant coach under linebacker coach Bob Sanders. She was the first woman to hold such a role on an NFL coaching staff.

"I think it's time," Sports Illustrated reports then-head coach Bruce Arians saying. "I am not afraid to step out and be different. Jen is a quality coach. She has earned this. I think she can help our players get better."

In an October 2017 interview with CNBC Make It, Welter says one of the keys to her success in football has been male mentors who believed in her potential.

"When you're the first woman, and there's no women in the room," she says, "a man has to open the door for you. And that's when it really has to be about progress and working together. Because if it's not in alignment, it's going to be a really tough process."

Kathryn Smith

Kathryn Smith Buffalo Bills Quality Control-Special Teams enters the field for warm ups before the game against the New England Patriots on October 30, 2016 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. 
Brett Carlsen | Getty Images
Kathryn Smith Buffalo Bills Quality Control-Special Teams enters the field for warm ups before the game against the New England Patriots on October 30, 2016 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. 

During the 2016-2017 season, Kathryn Smith became the first woman to hold a full-time coaching position in the NFL. She worked as a Special Teams Quality Control Coach for the Buffalo Bills, where she helped to formulate game plans and build playbooks for the team. Smith held that position for one season under then-head coach Rex Ryan.

She tells CNNMoney that it's crazy to hear that she was the first woman in that position because "you don't set out to be a trailblazer, and I didn't know that that's where my path was going to lead me."

Before stepping into her history-making role, Smith worked under Ryan when he was head coach of the New York Jets as a game-day/special events intern in 2003, reports ESPN. In 2005, she became a college scouting intern for the team, and then a player personnel assistant for the team in 2007. In 2014, Ryan appointed her to an administrative assistant position, a job she also held in 2015 when Ryan moved over to the Bills.

Katie Sowers

Aldrick Robinson #19 and Seasonal Offensive Assistant Coach  Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers stand on the field prior to the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on August 18, 2018.
Michael Zagaris | Getty Images
Aldrick Robinson #19 and Seasonal Offensive Assistant Coach Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers stand on the field prior to the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on August 18, 2018.

This year, Katie Sowers became the NFL's first openly gay and second full-time female coach, reports ESPN. Sowers, 31, works as an offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, making her the team's first female assistant coach.

In 2016, Sowers worked with coach Kyle Shanahan when he was an offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, according to ESPN. Before that, she played pro football for the Women's Football Alliance and was chosen to compete for the national team in the Women's World Championship.

In an interview with Outsports.com, she spoke about the importance of building more inclusive workplaces.

"There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation," she said. "The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day."

Kelsey Martinez

In 2018, Kelsey Martinez became the Oakland Raiders' first female assistant coach in the franchise's history. She is currently the only woman in the NFL working as a strength and conditioning coach, according to NFL.com.

In an interview with the Raiders' website, running back coach Jemal Singleton talked about the positive impact that he hopes 26-year-old Martinez's presence will have on his daughter.

"My daughter is five, so right now she's at such an impressionable age that the sights and sounds she's around will impact her really for the rest of her life," said Singleton. "And to be in a situation here — I don't know if it's the first, or the only — but to get to have a female strength coach in Kelsey is unbelievable. Because now my daughter can see there's so many different roles when you come here. You hear [play-by-play announcer] Beth Mowins on the call [during games], you see Kelsey out there working the players, and it's one of those things as a father you want your daughter to have those aspirations to be whatever she wants to be."

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