Sports writer Lindsey Prather covers the debut of 49ers skills coach Katie Sowers, a trailblazer for both women and the LGBTQ+ community.
On Feb. 2, San Francisco 49ers coach Katie Sowers will make history. This season Sowers grabbed headlines following her debut as a skills coach for the 49ers, and soon she will hold two historic titles: the first female coach and the first openly gay coach to coach in the Superbowl. Despite the slow progression of acceptance in the NFL, this event will mark some important milestones, both paving the way for both LGBTQ+ acceptance in the league and potentially allowing more skilled female coaches to have meaningful positions.
Sowers began her career not as a coach, but as an athlete. After playing in the Women’s Football Alliance for two separate clubs, she retired in late 2016 due to a significant hip injury. Sowers went on to join the NFL, working as an intern for the Atlanta Falcons. The following year, she accepted an assistant coach position with the 49ers and has found great success.
Following her short stint with the Atlanta Falcons as a training camp assistant, Sowers would go on to be the second female coach to ever work in the NFL. After coming out as gay just before the 2017 season, she detailed in an interview from earlier this season the difficulties faced regarding her sexuality and her professional life.
On one particularly glaring occasion, she described her experiences with blatant LGBTQ+ discrimination in sports. After seeking to coach in a meaningful capacity in college, Sowers was denied a volunteer coaching position due to her “lifestyle.” This event followed months of coaching with no incident, yet the distrust of student parents was sufficient grounds for dismissal.
Her alma mater, Goshen College, has since issued a statement apologizing and acknowledging the wrongdoing in 2009, the school’s policy allowed for such discrimination up until 2015. According to the university’s current president, Goshen updated their non-discrimination policy in 2015 to prevent such events happening in the future. Sowers has not publicly responded to the school’s statement.
Sowers has been very open in how this incident has affected her outlook on inclusivity; in May 2019, she founded the “49ers Pride Fan Club,” an LGBTQ+ group that had official recognition from the franchise. This club was the first of its kind, as the 49ers became the only team in the NFL to acknowledge their LGBTQ+ friends in such a meaningful way.
Early in the 2019 season, Sowers initially gained recognition in the NFL following her appearance in a widely-shared commercial for the Microsoft Surface. Much like the Arizona Cardinals’ addition of a female coach to their staff and the league’s hiring of a female referee (both in 2015), the treatment of women in visible roles was treated as somewhat of a novelty. However, after the great success enjoyed by the 49ers and her meaningful contributions to their development, she has been lauded by players and coaches alike for her knowledge and capability.
Her future in the NFL seems very bright; one can only hope that in a league where continuously failing coaches can still be entrusted with entire franchises, more women are able to climb the coaching ladder and aspire to the same elite levels.