On Jan. 20, 2016, the Buffalo Bills made history by naming Kathryn Smith its special teams quality control coach.
It’s the very first time a woman has filled a full-time coaching position in the NFL.
Smith was an administrative assistant to the team’s head coach, Rex Ryan, this season and worked by his side the past seven years (six of which were with the New York Jets).
In a statement from the Bills, Ryan said Smith has been “outstanding” and is certainly cut out for the new role.
“She has proven that she’s ready for the next step,” Ryan explained. “So I’m excited and proud for her with this opportunity.”
The news marks another recent (and big!) step forward for women in sports.
Just this past September, Jen Welter set the bar higher when she became the first female coach in NFL history, helping to assist the linebackers for the Arizona Cardinals (it was a temporary intern position — not permanent and full-time, like Smith’s).
And in July 2015, Becky Hammon cracked a glass ceiling in the NBA when she coached the San Antonio Spurs during summer league play. That’s big!
But don’t get too excited. Although this is all welcomed progress, we have a seriously long way to go.
Across all four major pro sports leagues in the U.S., there’s still not a single female head coach (and I’d think twice before claiming it’s because there aren’t enough talented women to take advantage of the opportunity).
Looking at college-level athletics? Well … the news might be even bleaker: In the NCAA, gender equality in coaching has been going in the wrong direction for years.
In 1972, about 90% of all college coaches in women’s sports were women. That figure had fallen to just 40% in 2015. And across men’s college sports teams, the percentage of coaches who are women — less than 2% — hardly registers a blip on the radar, as USA Today reported in February 2015.
“There are an absolute ton of heartbreaking stories that I hear day in and day out about females that are being forced out [of coaching positions],” Erika True, the head coach of women’s soccer at Indiana State University, told the outlet last year. “There is a stigma that females are not as good as or as strong of coaches as their male counterparts.”
It’s a stigma people like Smith, Hammon, and Welter are helping to discredit each day they head into work.
Still, social progress rarely moves forward in a perfectly straight line. And this week, we have reason to celebrate a significant step in the right direction.
Recent years have seen women gaining ground in business, Congress, and at the box office, too. It’s great to know Smith’s new job with the Buffalo Bills marks yet another point on the scoreboard for gender equality in sports as well.