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How Katie Sowers Became The 2nd Woman To Coach Full-Time In The NFL


Katie Sowers knows football. She grew up playing in her backyard with her twin sister in Kansas City, Mo.

KATIE SOWERS: Any chance that we had, we would go one-on-one, put, you know, helmet, pads - everything - and just, you know, go as hard as we could at each other.

CORNISH: She went on to play with the best - for the Kansas City Titans and internationally for the U.S. Nearly two years ago, she joined the San Francisco 49ers as an offensive assistant, making her the second woman in history to hold a full-time NFL coaching position. Then just last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired two female coaches. News like that feeds Katie Sowers' optimism about the future of women in coaching. But it's not an easy path for anyone. Sowers told me she got her big break when she met Scott Pioli. He's now assistant general manager for the Atlanta Falcons.

SOWERS: I really got to know him. He got to know me, about my passion, my love for football, my love for coaching. And he really became my mentor. And if it wasn't for him, I would definitely not be where I am today. There was a point where, you know, I owned a home. I was the athletic director for the city of Kansas City. You know, I had a mortgage to pay. And this opportunity came up in Atlanta to be an intern. And a lot of people don't know this, but he actually paid for my rent in Atlanta so that I would be able to afford my mortgage that I was still trying to pay. And, you know, I was blessed to have such a great mentor in my life.

CORNISH: What strikes me about your story is that it's in fact probably not unusual, right? Like, (laughter) I'm sure a lot of young male coaches, someone takes them under their wing.

SOWERS: Yeah. This is a world of its not necessarily what you know but who you know that really opens the doors for you. And I'm not saying that you don't have to know anything. But if you work on yourself and you get everything in line that you need, you continue to learn, build yourself, that other stuff follows when you network and you find those right people that are really willing to reach back and help you up.

CORNISH: So that last part is probably the most important. And I ask because, you know, for instance, in the NFL they have a diversity coaching fellowship, right, that was established back in the late '80s. But you haven't seen a pipeline of women marching into the league and coaching positions.

SOWERS: Right.

CORNISH: So where do you think it falls apart? Is the idea that, well, we can't have a woman 'cause she won't have pro experience? Or we can't have a woman 'cause she won't have coached enough? Or we can't - like, what follows that, we can't have a woman because?

SOWERS: It's an assumption that we can't have a woman because she's not as knowledgeable. She doesn't know the game. She doesn't have the experience. And that's my own opinion because no one's ever told me a woman can't. It's just what I observe. I think we live in a society where it's often assumed that men know things until they prove they don't, and it's assumed women don't know things until they prove they do. And that hinders a lot of opportunities.

CORNISH: We heard about your experience in the positive, meaning, a coach takes you under his wing, helps you as you work your way up. What has been your experience in terms of encountering sexism? Like, when you have maybe interviewed for other kinds of coaching jobs, what have you been told?

SOWERS: I actually - I won't mention what team it was, but I did interview with a team prior to coming to San Francisco. And the interview went extremely well. And I sat down with one of the coaches, and he said that they were actually shocked by how much they really liked me and said they would love to maybe open up opportunities for me down the road, but at that moment that they weren't ready to have a female on staff. And I absolutely respected their honesty because they could have easily just told me, you know, someone else was better fit for the position and moved on. But...

CORNISH: Did they say why they weren't ready?

SOWERS: They felt like they knew that I had a background with Kyle.

CORNISH: Kyle Shanahan. He's head coach of the 49ers.

SOWERS: Right. And they felt like it was going to be a better situation for me to not pass up that opportunity to come with Kyle. Because, you know, it's kind of like a been there, done that, thing. They know how it goes. Which, what teams will start to find is it's really not different to have a woman on staff. It's just like everybody else. But it's new.

And, you know, it was interesting 'cause I told that to Coach Turner, who's our running backs coach, and we had some really interesting conversation just about some of the similarities that he faced, you know, as an African-American male trying to get into the coaching world about 40 years ago or 47 years ago, or something like that. So it was really a unique conversation, and I appreciated going through that experience but I know it's something that hopefully down the road other women won't have to encounter.

CORNISH: That's Katie Sowers. She's an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

SOWERS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.