Last fall, a routine question at a press conference left Cam Newton unable to contain himself. Before the reporter even finished her prompt, the Panthers quarterback was struggling to suppress his laughter. Why?
"It's funny to hear a female talk about routes," Newton said with a smirk. It wasn't the question he found so amusing—it was the gender of the person who asked it.
Nobody on the right side of history was laughing alongside Cam Newton.
The past year has delivered long-overdue victories for workplace equality, as #MeToo mashes up with the pace of progress and traditional ceilings to hiring for marginalized groups get smashed—yes, even in the NFL.
Katie Sowers is the NFL's second full-time female coach, and the only active one, after San Francisco converted her from seasonal intern to full-time offensive assistant last summer. She's also the league's first openly LGBT coach, coming out publicly shortly after her hire.
It's a step forward for gender equity on the big job that is making a pro team work, but this particular gay woman on an NFL sideline is there because it makes football sense.
Sowers played tackle football for eight years in the Women's Football Alliance and starred on the U.S. national team. In 2016, she got her NFL start as an intern with the Falcons, where she caught the attention of Shanahan, their offensive coordinator. When the Niners poached him, he poached her.
Sowers spent the 2017 offseason with the 49ers as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship before being offered a full-time gig working with the team's wide receivers. In March, San Francisco confirmed Sowers will be back on the sidelines this season.
If you think Sowers' hiring was some sort of PR move, well, she hasn't talked to the media much at all. And just listen to what her players have to say.
"Katie is a baller, 100 percent," receiver Marquise Goodwin said.
"Katie's been phenomenal," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "She's someone we've been able to lean on."
Instead of trying to blend into her hyper-masculine environment, Sowers embraces her status as a role model. While with the Falcons, she told Outsports, her sexual orientation came up in conversation with co-workers, but those she's worked alongside in Atlanta and San Francisco have been nothing but accepting.
Her success begs the question: How much progress can we see in the NFL, where cracking the shield takes a certain kind of courage? Becky Hammon is ready to become an NBA head coach, and there are women and members of the LGBT community out there dreaming to do the same in football.
But the path to opening minds and changing the game is through normalization, and courage is contagious.
Among many inspirational messages on Katie Sowers' social media feeds, a tweet stands out. It's a picture of a girl with a football, next to one sign of the future—FORGET PRINCESS...I WANT TO BE AN NFL COACH—and one sign of progress well behind us: THANKS KATIE SOWERS FOR PAVING THE WAY. The caption reads: "No matter what you do in life, know your 'why.'" Katie Sowers certainly knows hers.
Jackie Bamberger is a writer from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Yahoo Sports and USA Today Sports. Follow her on Twitter @jackie_bam.
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