After playing one season for the Dallas Cowboys and one for the New England Patriots, I huddled up for a third season with the rest of my flag football team wearing a uniform that simply read “NFL Flag.” The uniforms were relics of a world far from mine. I lived in Indonesia at the time; what I knew of football came from my dad wearing his Packers shirt around the house after work, where he discovered the scores of games played twelve hours and nine-thousand miles away from our dial-up computer.
As little as I knew about the NFL, my participation in flag football was never a question. I loved sports so much that I joined soccer, baseball, basketball, the swim team, and a running club where we ran at least five kilometers every Tuesday night. Because our school was so small, each team was co-ed. Athletes were known for their skills rather than separated by gender, which is a quality of those early years that I still treasure. Looking back, perhaps I idealized athletics, believing that sport could erase the expectations of gender placed upon me in other ways. On the field, I imagined myself not as a girl, but as a twirling blur of muscle and breath.
This illusion was punctured in a huddle during my third year of flag football. My coach that year was a man with a reputation for calling his sons “sissies” if they showed any sign of exhaustion on the field. He glanced around the gleaming faces of our team, signaling off starting positions. When he got to me and another girl, the only other on the team, he said “bench” to us both. I stood on the sidelines, cheering my team toward a touchdown, and waiting for the signal to tag in. There was an unspoken rule within our league that teams should be fair to both boys and girls by giving them equal playing time, and my coach gave a chance to the other girl, who was older, but quickly took her out again when he thought someone else could do better. When his son showed up to half-time sweaty and lagging, I thought I might have my chance, but he told him to “man up” and sent him back in. As the game stretched on and the lowering sun colored the sky a dusky blue, I remained sidelined. When I got home that night, I wept. I knew I was fast, knew I could hold my own — as I had for three years — against anyone in the league, and knew I cared enough about my teammates to run fake routes without a chance at the ball. But none of that was enough. To that coach, I was a girl. Someone who could watch the game, but not participate.
I won’t say that after that moment I began to negotiate gender and sport, but something in me shifted. I quit playing flag football after that season. Wondering if I would always be categorized as a “girl,” I pushed myself to the absolute brink of what was possible in every other sport I played, ensuring, for example, that when I crossed the finish line of the mile first, before all the boys, that I was acknowledged for my prowess and not my gender.
I competed in multiple sports for almost all of middle school and high school, and then went on to run for a Division I team. When I look back now, I’m amazed to realize I can count two female coaches across a lifetime, plus a handful of female assistant coaches. I’m not the only one to experience this inequality. The 2017 College Sport Racial & Gender Report Card, which assigns grades to sports based on a comprehensive evaluation of gender and race, notes that white men “dominated the head coaching ranks on men’s teams holding 86.5 percent, 87.8 percent, and 91.6 percent of all head coaching positions in Divisions I, II, and III, respectively.”
I’m not insinuating here that female coaches are superior to male coaches or vice versa, but I’m wondering where these discrepancies come from. Are the factors that lead to highly disproportionate numbers of white male coaches somehow related all the way back to childhood athletics, during which young female athletes are told that they belong on the bench? Or are there other factors at play? Female coaches are earning positions in sports previously coached only by men — Jen Welter became the NFL’s first female coach in 2015, and, in 2016, the Arizona Coyotes hired Dawn Braid as the first female coach in the NHL — but the fact that these titles are newsworthy indicates that we have a lot of work to do to diversify coaching staff not only by gender, but also by race.
1. College Athletics’ War on Women Coaches (Pat Griffin, March 8, 2015, Huffpost)
In 2015, Shannon Miller, who coached women’s ice hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was notified by the university that her contract would not be renewed at the end of the season because of concerns that she was being paid too much for her work.
“Placed in the context of a disturbing trend in the diminishing number of women coaches and the treatment of the women in athletics over the last several years, this decision has more far reaching consequences for college women’s athletics.”
Pat Griffin summarizes a list of troubling action taken toward female coaches from 2007 to 2015 and argues that “the public rationale offered by athletic administrators for their decisions in each of these cases masks a deeper and more fundamental problem in college athletics: misogyny, sexism, and homophobia.”
2. An Open Letter About Female Coaches (Pau Gasol, May 11, 2018, The Players’ Tribune)
Pau Gasol of the San Antonio Spurs, in an open letter, not only successfully dismantles others’ arguments as to why Becky Hammon should not be head coach of an NBA team, but also urges the NBA — and fans of the NBA — to advocate and work toward a more inclusive league as a whole.
“Let’s recognize that one protest does not mean we have solved the problem of racial inequality in this country. One parade doesn’t mean we’re doing everything we can for the LGBTQ movement. And one coaching interview doesn’t mean we have solved the issue of gender diversity in our workplace.”
(Related: read Sidelined by Matthew J.X. Malady in Slate.)
3. American Running Needs More Female Coaches (Erin Strout, September 14, 2018, Outside)
By examining the sport of running as a focal point in this piece, Erin Strout illuminates the reasons why women are less likely to become coaches, interviews women in coaching positions to understand their challenges, and wonders about the future of women’s coaching and how more women in coaching positions could impact sport.
“Whether at the professional or collegiate level, Hogshead-Makar says that adding more female influence within the sport is crucial—not only to advance gender equity but also to provide a safer environment where athletes can thrive.”
(Related: read Reem Abulleil’s Why aren’t there more female coaches on tour? published by the Women’s Tennis Association.)
4. Where Are The Women? (Rachel Stark, Winter, 2017 NCAA Champion Magazine)
“In 1972, women coached more than 90 percent of collegiate women’s teams. Today, they coach fewer than half.”
In this 2017 piece for NCAA Champion Magazine, Rachel Stark investigates the effect that female coaches’ visible representation has on younger athletes who play sports, and also provides a number of resources such as “How to Support Young Coaches on the Rise,” “How to Strengthen Your Contacts,” and “How to Deepen the Candidate Pool” as a way to encourage more women to apply for coaching positions, and to open the conversation about gender, race, representation, and coaching within college sports.
(Related: read Number of Women Coaching in College Has Plummeted in Title IX Era by Jeré Longman published in The New York Times.)
5. The Field Where Men Still Call the Shots (Linda Flanagan, July 28, 2018, The Atlantic)
In this deeply researched essay, Linda Flanagan argues that a dearth of female role models in sport can negatively impact female athletes in several ways, such as leadership styles, lack of participation in sport, and an inability to visualize themselves as future coaches.
“According to a 2009 study by the sociologists Michael Messner and Suzel Bozada-Deas, men typically coach, and women typically serve as “team moms”…In the researchers’ view, this imbalance stems from “institutional gender regimes” that divide the work between men and women based on traditional roles.”
6. The Rise of Women Coaching Men (Michael LoRé, April 26, 2018, culture trip)
When Natalie Randolph tells a man at the bar that she’s a former football player, he barrages her with questions.
“Wait, you played football? Did you wear pads? A helmet? Was it the Lingerie Football League? And you coached? So then, what’s a spread offense? Do you know the 3-technique?”
This instance, as Michael LoRé reports, is representative of the kind of frustrating and discriminatory reaction Randolph encounters frequently when she talks about her experiences as a woman of color who is both a football player and female coach of a male football team. And her story is not an anomaly. LoRé, using Randolph’s experiences as a thru-line throughout the piece, discusses the current state of coaching and weaves in stories from other female coaches.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness.