The story caused a buzz in the football world on Sunday: former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was being considered for the head coach position of the Cleveland Browns. Like many people who saw the headline, I felt perplexed.
There is no question that Rice is a smart woman, and beyond her academic accolades, she is an ardent sports fan, and in particular she loves football. In fact, in October 2013 Rice was chosen as one of the 13 inaugural members of the College Football Playoff selection committee. That appointment surprised many, but when it was revealed that Rice watched “14 or 15 games every week live on TV on Saturdays and recorded games on Sundays,” her part-time job made more sense.
If Rice were to be chosen, she would be the first female head coach of an NFL team. In the history of the
NFL, only four women have held positions as any type of coach: Jen Welter with the Arizona Cardinals; Collette Smith with the New York Jets; Katie Sowers with the San Francisco 49ers; and Kathryn Smith with the Buffalo Bills. The latter two are the only ones to have been offered full-time positions.
While it was later revealed on Sunday that Rice was not a realistic contender for the Browns job, the speculation around her even being in the picture caused a wave of negativity. It’s easy to see why: Rice has zero experience coaching football, and there are plenty of other women who have dedicated their lives to the sport – as Rice herself pointed out. Those coaches have experienced the brunt of sexism and misogyny from those who believe women don’t belong in football at all. And because of that sexism, many women who had the potential to be a head coach were either pushed out of the league or looked over as serious candidates.
It’s perplexing that Rice’s name even came to the surface of this conversation in the first place. A lazy attempt on someone’s part within the Browns organization to show that they are progressive by even considering a woman for the job only highlights the lack of serious thought they are giving to find a female head coach.
As Lindsay Jones of The Athleticwrote, “If the Browns are truly serious about considering a female coach – or even adding women to their coaching and front office staffs in the future – they should follow the lead of the NBA, where Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon is a legitimate head coaching candidate after working for years under Gregg Popovich, as an assistant coach and eventually as the head coach of the Spurs’ summer league team.”
In US professional sports, there are no female head coaches. And in college sports, the numbers aren’t much better. This is due in part to a sad side effect of Title IX, which increased the opportunities for girls’ access to sports, but in turn greatly hurt the women already coaching. Before Title IX passed 90% of women’s college teams were coached by women. Today that number sits at 40%.
But while 60% of women’s NCAA teams are coached by men, only 2-3% of NCAA men’s teams are coached by a woman. Of the women coaching men in college, only 5% exclusively coach men. This means the majority of women coaching men in college are also coaching women in cross-country, track or swimming.
With all these stats at hand, it is at least encouraging that the Rice story has led to a discussion about women coaching men. Perhaps more importantly, we are beginning to dive more deeply into the reasons why women have been systematically pushed to the sidelines and forced to watch men take on roles that they are equipped for.
Right now, there are no realistic candidates to become the head coach of an NFL team. That’s not down to ability but because very few women are given the opportunity to start off as assistant coaches and build-up experience. It’s certainly not because you need to have played in the NFL to be a good coach. The wonderfully talented Sean McVay who, at the age of just 32, has made the LA Rams into an NFL powerhouse never played professionally, and neither did perhaps the greatest head coach of all time, the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick.
As one person commented on Jones’ article: “…the chance of a woman being a [head] coach are very slim … not due to abilities, but due to experience that they theoretically will never possess. Here is to the woman that pulls off the one in a billion chance though.”
The question remains: who will she be?