“The guys don’t think of me as a female; they see me as just another official.”
— Sarah Thomas
I am that N.F.L. fan. The one who leads the fight song, takes my fantasy team too seriously and won’t give my father-in-law back his Eagles jersey. I even cemented my team loyalty in my wedding vows.
In recent years, though, my enthusiasm has waned — with each revelation about sexual harassment (most recently by cheerleaders and office workers), domestic abuse and the effect of the sport on players’ brains.
But long before these problems came to light, I found the lack of women in leadership roles in the sport irritating. We often discuss the need for more women in the boardroom, but what about in the locker room, a team’s back office and on the sidelines?
So I was encouraged this weekend to see Sarah Thomas become the first woman to officiate an N.F.L. playoff game. Thomas, a Mississippi native and a mother of three, had already broken plenty of ground in the sport — becoming the first full-time female official in N.F.L. history in 2015. She was also the first woman to referee a major college football game, a bowl game and a game in a Big Ten stadium.
Thomas wasn’t the only first over the weekend. In a playoff game on Saturday, Terri Valenti became the first female replay official.
The news got me thinking about the women who had already changed football — the ones who have smashed through the gender wall without pads, a helmet or much fanfare. Here are three worth remembering.
“I might be the first, but I don’t think I’ll be the only one for very long.”
— Kathryn Smith
In 2016, Kathryn Smith was hired by the Buffalo Bills head coach, Rex Ryan, as a quality control special teams coach, making her the N.F.L.’s first full-time female assistant coach.
At the time of her promotion, Smith said the move “shows somebody if you work hard that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and if that’s the message that’s getting across to girls, boys, whoever it is, then I think that’s a good thing.”
“I might be the first, but I don’t think I’ll be the only one for very long,” she said, and she was right.
In August 2017, Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers became the second woman to be hired as a full-time assistant coach. She is also the first openly gay N.F.L. coach.
After Ryan was let go after the 2016 season, Smith was not retained by the Bills’s new head coach, Sean McDermott.
“It was a tremendous feeling of just satisfaction of all the hard work and all the time spent trying to prepare for that opportunity.”
— Beth Mowins
In September 2017, Beth Mowins became the first woman to call a nationally televised N.F.L. game: a Monday Night Football divisional matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos.
By doing this, she also became the second female play-by-play announcer in N.F.L. regular season history. Gayle Sierens, a sports anchor in Florida, announced a game in 1987.
Mowins was hired by ESPN in 1994. Since 2005, she has called play-by-play games for women’s college sports and for college football. She has also been the voice for the Oakland Raiders’ preseason games in recent years.
“Work as hard as you can. And when you don’t think you can work any harder, try to find a way to work harder.”
— Amy Trask
In 1997, Amy Trask became the first female chief executive officer of an N.F.L. team, the Oakland Raiders — a position she held until 2013.
Trask is a self-made woman in the industry. In the 1980s, while in college, she cold-called the Raiders and offered to work as an unpaid intern. A few years later, in 1987, the team’s legal department brought her on as a full-time lawyer. She ascended to the top from there.
Trask left the team in 2013, and in 2016, her book, “You Negotiate Like A Girl: Reflections on a Career in the National Football League,” was published.