Katie Sowers will be the first woman to assistant-coach during the Super Bowl in the history of the NFL this year—but let’s not say that 2020 is a “year of sports firsts” for women. That sounds too cliché and cringe-worthy. It seems each year, women are promised that it will be theirs—as if we asked for one, when what we really need is to be continuously and fairly represented all of time.
Sowers is emblematic of America’s cultural shift in sports: one in which women are moving from demanding equality to expecting it.
For children watching the Super Bowl at home, seeing only men coach feeds the assumption women do not coach football. The same goes with watching who plays the sport. The Super Bowl has practically become a national holiday in America—but while the biggest American football game of the year is brought into homes by corporate sponsors, families gather for what may not be very friendly family because of the clear and obvious sexism.
The sexism is at its most permeating considering several teams opt to have cheerleaders and only a few have been men (often now just called dancers), whereas women’s sports do not have a cheerleading squad. Children are perceptible beings, and it is perceptible through NFL cheerleading that these dancer’s roles are as supporters—as eye-candy, really—and not as competitive.
In 2016, the NFL hired Sam Rappaport as the director of football development to help diversify the league with hiring women. Four years later, Sowers will be the first woman to coach an NFL team during the Super Bowl. But in almost every sport where women are the star athletes, no one ever captioned a headline “first man coach for American softball team.”
This year, Florida flag football players will also compete during the Super Bowl Experience, which girls can participate in—but flag football seems to be the alternative, not the equalizer, much like the way that softball is not the same sport as MLB. Nevada, Alaska and the state of Georgia, along with the NFL and the Atlanta Falcons, have given girls the chance to play flag football in high schools while boys play tackle football.
Earlier in 2020, we witnessed basketball players in the WNBA jump up the ranks to make more than six figures with new players starting with just under seventy grand. This is arguably the biggest victory the players and teams have had since the league began in 1997. Is the “W” as necessary as it is obnoxious, though? The NBA is not prefaced with a bold letter “M” to signify the biological sexes of their players. Disney World has an NBA experience, open to all children, but there is no WNBA experience, because that would be redundant because it is redundant.
Sowers began coaching in 2017—but she is also a football player. She formerly played pro football with the Women’s Football Alliance, leading to an American gold-medal victory—but WFA games are not as easy to catch as the convenient NFL games, so most people don’t even know about her athletic career.
Unlike soccer, tennis, swimming and even hockey, American football as defined by the NFL holds up men as the gold standard of athleticism. The sexism football symbolizes begins with Friday night high school varsity football games, where each team showcases the athleticism of the schools’ best male athletes and the sacred rivalry between towns is nearly mythological.
The Super Bowl is an outdated reminder that as girls and women, we are expected to cheer and watch with the same enthusiasm as the boys and men—but never have the chance to try out for the team.
With rare exceptions, girls who want to play the same football games as their male peers will need parents and schools who are willing to fight for their right to equal play. Perhaps watching Sowers will motivate them to speak up and demand an equal playing field.