I have yet to meet 49ers assistant Katie Sowers, but I will. I want to shake hands with the woman who broke through a glass ceiling when she became the league’s second female assistant a week ago, then came back a few days later and tore right through another taboo topic.
The LGBT and the NFL.
Who said the two could never share a locker room? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Haven’t we been hearing this for decades?
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Sowers apparently never got the message. In an interview published Tuesday with the website Outsports, she revealed that she is a lesbian, which makes her the first openly gay coach in any of the major professional sports. It also suggests that this is one amazingly courageous and confident human being.
This is the NFL, remember, which is not to be confused with the WNBA, where a significant percentage of coaches and players are gay, or the historically progressive NBA, where Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts is the highest ranking openly gay man in the industry. This is also the league that was shamefully slow in responding appropriately to Ray Rice’s assault on his fiancée in a hotel elevator and that employed Chris Culliver when the cornerback went on his anti-gay rant before the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens met in the Super Bowl.
Asked if gay players would be welcome in the locker room, Culliver replied, “Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah. Can’t be in the locker room, man. Nah.”
Yet here it is four years later, with social unrest stirring throughout the country, and the Bay Area is emerging as the land of the free and home of the brave. Welts. Sowers. Colin Kaepernick. The former 49ers quarterback’s decision to sit (and then kneel) during the national anthem last season angered much of the NFL fan base, but he had a job until he opted out of his contract to pursue a more favorable situation elsewhere. And we all see how that’s working out.
Sowers, of course, could have hidden her sexual orientation for fear of the repercussions, as players and coaches in various other professional sports continue to do. Billie Jean King, still the most powerful and respected voice for women’s sports, agonized over her decision to come out and anticipated the loss of several sponsors; she declined to discuss her sexuality publicly until she retired. Martina Navratilova was forthcoming at a younger age, but she addressed the issue more forcefully later in her career.
Yet for whatever reason – and one has to wonder if the WNBA’s survival isn’t empowering today’s females – the list of athletes publicly identifying themselves as LGBT within recent months and years continues to grow. Soccer’s Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, and basketball’s Sue Bird, Brittney Griner, Elena Della Donne and Seimone Augustus, are just a few who have shared their experiences and spoken about the hardships of growing up as lesbians.
“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” Sowers explained to Outsports. “There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation. The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”
Sowers’ path to the NFL is not unlike many of her male colleagues. A native of Kansas, she and her twin sister grew up playing several sports but gravitated to football. Upon graduation from Goshen College in Indiana, she played professionally for the Women’s Football Alliance and served as general manager of the Kansas City Titans. After accepting a scouting internship with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, she got to know then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The two reunited when Shanahan was hired as 49ers head coach and offered Sowers another internship, this time working with the receivers as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Coaching Diversity Fellowship.
“Our receivers coach (Mike LaFleur) came to me a couple weeks ago and asked me how much longer Katie was going to be here,” Shanahan related Wednesday after 49ers practice. “He said, ‘Man, if there was any way to keep her on throughout the rest of the year … she helps me a lot.’ She gets along well with the players in the receivers’ room. The receivers respect her. I like Katie. I like how she handles herself. She’s been great to have around. When she said she’d be interested in staying throughout the year, that was a pretty easy decision for me.”
An easy decision for him, maybe. The only other NFL female assistant – Kathryn Smith – was hired as quality control coach by the Buffalo Bills last season. And that’s a crowd compared with the number of openly gay NFL players, past or present. Zero. Zip. None. Defensive end Michael Sam came out shortly after being drafted by the Rams in 2014, but he never played in a regular season game and was waived by the Cowboys in 2015.
According to Outsports, 11 players have come out during retirement, with former 49ers running back Dave Kopay being the first in 1975.
Sowers effusively praises Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli for giving her the first internship and remaining a mentor. “I could not have asked for a more open-minded and accepting group of people to work with,” she told the website. “I never once felt judged and I was treated just like anyone would want to be treated – as a typical person working to build a career.”
Except there is nothing typical about Sowers or her choice of career. Before the 49ers preseason game last Saturday at Levi’s Stadium, several young girls recognized the first-year assistant and asked for an autograph. They wanted to experience a slice of NFL history, too.