Earlier this week, the Buffalo Bills made history by becoming the first NFL team to hire a full-time female coach. Kathryn Smith will take on the role of the special teams quality control coach, which involves analysing the special teams (the various kicker positions) of the Bill’s opponents. Following this fantastic moment for the sport, today, I decided to look back at the varied history of women within the sport of American Football.
For a long time, as with many other sports, American Football was considered a ‘man’s game’, with the sport seen to be too tough for women. In fact, even the cheerleaders- a female dominated section of the game today- started out as an all-male hobby, with colleges only admitting women into their cheer squads on a mainstream level from the 1940s onwards. Prior to that, women were either turned away if they tried to join the sport or, in the case of the 1926 Frankford Yellow Jackets (now the Philadelphia Eagles), used as a half-time spectacle.
However, as the 20th Century continued, women did begin to find a way into American Football, especially at the high school and college level. In 1972, Theresa Dion became the first woman to play on a high school varsity team when she came on as a placekicker for Immaculate High School in Key West. Despite this, it would be a slow, uphill battle for women, with many players happy with becoming the first female players in their particular state.
Similarly, things were equally slow for women looking to play football at the collegiate level. It wouldn’t be until 1993 before Tonya Butler became the first female recipient of a football scholarship when she went to play for Middle Georgia College. Four years later, Liz Heaton would become the first woman to school in a college football game when she converted two extra points during a 27-0 victory for her college, Willamette University. Following that, Ashley Martin would become the woman to score in a NCAA game, when she converted an extra point for Jacksonville State in 2001. There is a potential addition to this list- Shelley Osborne of Campbellsville University stands to become the first female player in a non-kicking position on a college team.
The story is very similar when it comes to coaches, with women only very recently being considered for coaching staff positions. Jennifer Welter was a pre-season Inside Line-backer coach for the Arizona Cardinals and also sports a long playing career. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Kathryn Smith has had a long career within the NFL, initially starting out as a game day intern for the New York Jets in 2003.
However, these positions are highly unprotected- in 1996, current Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, at this point the quarterback for the Tennessee Volunteers college team, allegedly pulled down his shorts and sat on the face of a female trainer while she checked his foot after he had complained of pain in his Achilles heel. After reaching a settlement with the university, the trainer left. End of story, right? Wrong. When Manning wrote a biography in 2002, in which he claimed that he was mooning a prominent track athlete and while he didn’t think the trainer had seen him do it, she was known to be ‘vulgar’ and so would have found it funny. Unfortunately for the trainer, who was now a director of an athletics program in Florida, she lost her job over the ‘vulgar’ label.
For every attempt women make to enter the world of American Football, the sport still appears to stand as a “bastion of masculinity” (BBC) but it is certainly refreshing to see that women are able to forge a path within the proud American past time.