Kathryn Smith broke a glass ceiling on Wednesday when she became the first full-time female coach in the 96-year history of the NFL.
After working in the league for the past 13 years, Smith is now the special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills.
“Kathryn Smith has done an outstanding job in the seven years that she has worked with our staff,” Bills Head Coach Rex Ryan said in a statement. “She certainly deserves this promotion based on her knowledge and strong commitment, just to name a couple of her outstanding qualities, and I just know she’s going to do a great job serving in the role of Quality Control-Special Teams.”
While a special teams quality control coach is about as low on the coaching totem pole as one can get, it is considered one of the best ways to learn the game. Many current and former NFL coaches, such as Jon Gruden and Tony Sparano, started out as quality control coaches. According to SB Nation, the job involves breaking down film, analyzing data, preparing reports for head coaches and coordinators, and running the scout team.
Smith worked for the New York Jets for 12 years, then moved with Ryan when he took the head coaching job in Buffalo last season. She began as a gameday/special events intern and has worked her way up the ranks, transitioning from a college scouting intern to a player personnel assistant and eventually an assistant to the head coach.
A few Bills players have already sent their support to Smith:
Congrats Kathryn!! I know you will do a great job. ???????????? https://t.co/DWpWQJAtV5
— Richie Incognito (@68INCOGNITO) January 21, 2016
Congrats to Coach Kathryn Smith! Welcome aboard! This is a big deal people!
— MarQueis Gray (@MarQueisG) January 21, 2016
With it’s hyper-masculine image and horrible track record when it comes to handling domestic violence and sexual assault, the NFL has been accused of hating women. This hiring continues a positive, albeit long overdue, trend for women in football, which is one of the few sports that doesn’t have women’s teams in the youth and collegiate levels.
Last year, Jen Welter became the first female coach in NFL history when she was hired by the Arizona Cardinals as a training camp intern. However, the Cardinals did not bring her on in a full-time capacity after training camp ended. Sarah Thomas was also hired as the NFL’s first full-time female official this season.
Women have been breaking barriers in the coaching ranks in other sports, as well — Becky Hammon became the first woman hired as a full-time assistant coach in the NBA when she joined the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, and Nancy Lieberman followed in her footsteps when she was hired by the Sacramento Kings last summer.
Last fall, Justine Siegal became the first female coach to work for an MLB team when the Oakland Athletics hired her for two weeks of its Instructional League camp. And in December, the Seattle Mariners hired Amanda Hopkins as the first full-time female MLB scout in 60 years.
Ryan was clearly paying attention to all of these groundbreaking hires.
“I consulted with Bruce Arians on this since he was really the first NFL head coach to make this kind of move when he hired a female linebackers coach through the summer,” he said. “You can see the success some of these young ladies are having in the coaching profession, such as the young lady that is an assistant to Coach (Gregg) Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs, and realize how exciting this is for women like Kathryn Smith as well as the Bills organization.”
However, the feedback isn’t all positive. In addition to the many expected but none-the-less frustrating sexist comments on Twitter, some have criticized the way the announcement was handled:
1) OK but the "young lady" has a name, and it is Becky Hammon. 2) How you gonna spell Pop's name wrong there too? https://t.co/0LyijKWcvN
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 21, 2016
FWIW, when the Spurs hired Becky Hammon they didn't mention her gender once in the press release. https://t.co/scSLs9nIar
— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) January 21, 2016
But overall, this is a small step for the NFL and a giant leap for women-in-sports-kind.
“My daughter, like many young girls love football but see it purely as a male-driven, male-run sport with a few female fans sprinkled in,” Veronica R. Chiesi Brown, the Editor-in-Chief of Bills Fanatics, wrote in an open letter to Ryan. “You have helped put in a motion the idea that woman belong on the sidelines not just holding pom-poms and cheering. You have given all females a chance to believe and strive to be a bigger part of the sport that we love and support.”