The Buffalo Bills announced on Jan. 21 that they hired Kathryn Smith as a female special teams quality control coach. More significantly, the Bills hired the first-ever female full-time assistant coach in the history of the NFL. The hiring decision has received extremely positive reactions, and it seems that the general sports population is eager to see a figure like Smith enter into a more influential position on an NFL coaching staff.
A quality control coach is a term that’s mysterious to many NFL fans. An article on Mile High Report describes a QCC as a coach who acts as an assistant behind the scenes to break down film, analyze data, produce reports and examine the tendencies of their team’s opponents. A QCC reviews a team’s performance through analytic work and informs the on-field coaching staff of specific changes or adaptations that need to be made based off film or the opposition’s strategy.
Selecting Smith for this particular position, at its core, has both positive impacts and potentially negative consequences. Even for male coaches, there has always been a stigma associated with being on a coaching staff without ever having played the game on a professional level. As a woman, this is a setback for Smith. That’s not to say that she won’t be a good coach because of this — several coaches with no professional playing experience have been extremely successful: New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and former Denver Broncos Head Coach Mike Shanahan, to name a few. Still, it could work against her in the eyes of the media and worse, her colleagues and players.
Nevertheless, Smith is making history. Just last year, Sarah Thomas became the first NFL official referee in history. Jen Welter was named an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason for the Arizona Cardinals in July 2015. Chronologically, it makes sense that a female full-time assistant coach would be the next major achievement for women in the NFL. However, in a sport dominated almost exclusively by men, hiring a female assistant coach is still a huge step. Without a doubt, Smith is a trailblazer in the field.
An ESPN article published in March 2014 explained that only about 70 women occupied positions with NFL teams at the vice president level or above. While the number of administrative positions may be steadily growing, the on-the-field opportunities have been difficult to obtain for quite some time. Katie Blackburn, the executive vice president for the Cincinnati Bengals, explained that as long as there isn’t women’s football, the chances for women to get involved on the field are much slimmer. The number of female NFL scouts can be counted on one hand. Whether it is about respect from colleagues or the perceived level of women’s expertise from outside individuals, it is clear that there are inherent barriers in place for women interested in becoming involved with the hands-on components of the game.
But of course, football is not the only sport in which women have faced significant obstacles, whether it be in the fight to be paid equally or simply to be treated with equal respect. A June 2015 BuzzFeed article wrote that the US Women’s National Soccer Team would receive $33 million less than the men’s winner, receiving $2 million while the men’s team earned a whopping $35 million. Even at the high school level, less money is budgeted towards girls’ sports than boys’ sports. In 2011, one Michigan high school district reduced the number of for girls’ basketball games while maintaining the same number for boys’ basketball games.
Additionally, even with the passage of Title IX, female college athletes receive $183 million less than men in NCAA athletic scholarships, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. That statistic shows fewer scholarships distributed to female athletes, which signifies clear evidence of inequality.
These examples of inequality shed an even brighter light on the accomplishments of Smith and other female trailblazers in what is the single most male-dominated sport in the realm of professional athletics. But the ultimate obstacle to women in the NFL, and perhaps the greatest irony of the recent success of female staffers and referees, is the existential threat to football that looms in the not-so-distant future.
There is a concern within the football world that is nearly impossible to ignore. In the past decade, from Junior Seau’s suicide, to the retirement of Chris Borland to the public hysteria surrounding CTE, there has been a shadow cast over the NFL. Just a few days before Smith’s hiring became public, former Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El spoke to the media about his quality of life after a nine-year career in the NFL.
At 36, Randle El says he has trouble walking down the stairs. He experiences short-term memory loss. He worries about being able to meet his grandchildren someday.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t. I would play baseball,” Randle El said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”
He is not alone in his opinions about the future of football.
Some have had more conservative opinions. In an interview with SportsIllustrated.com, senior writer Jon Weirtheim explained that the sport will still be around in 50 years, but as families begin to evaluate the risks and rewards of playing the game, the demographics of the players will change.
Grantland’s Kevin Grief and Tyler Cowen take a more radical stance on the future of football, co-writing an op-ed in 2012 that suggested the NFL could experience a doomsday situation in the “not-too-distant future … this slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years.”
That was four years ago.
After Smith was hired, she stated she believes there will soon be many more women in the league.
“I may be the first, but I don’t think I’ll be the only one for very long,” she said.
Smith’s optimism is empowering. When female football fans aspiring to enter the world of sports professionally see a woman among the coaching staff of a professional football team, they are not discouraged from pursuing a position as an influential individual in sports. Instead, they see a model to aspire toward.
Though the timing of Randle El’s statement and the Bills’ announcement about Smith seems coincidental, the implications of these ominous predictions are a very real issue for women who have fought long and hard to earn important roles in the NFL. It is disheartening to female fans and coaches alike that the trajectories of women in football and football itself seem to be in complete opposition.
It is scary to think about how many more women will get the chance to pursue an opportunity as an NFL coach when players and reporters alike believe the sport is nearing its end.
The implications and long-term consequences of repeated head trauma are very real, and as Weirtheim said, it will not be long before people begin to think more seriously about the risks associated with sending their 12-year-olds onto the field to prepare for an eventual career in the game.
Smith has broken down a barrier that has been existent for far too long. Hopefully, as she explained, she will be the first of many women to coach in the NFL. But, based on the serious health risks and dangers associated with the sport, the path that she is paving for women interesting in pursuing these careers may be cut short.
Madeline Auerbach is a junior in the College.
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