Buffalo Bills' LeSean McCoy (25) and Mike Gillislee (35) celebrate after Gillislee's touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Dec. 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. 
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Full-time female NFL coach latest gain for diversity in sports

The Buffalo Bills made history Wednesday night by hiring Kathryn Smith as the NFL’s first full-time female assistant coach, signaling that the infamously all-male world of pro sports is starting to creep into the 21st century. 

Smith, who was the administrative assistant to Bills head coach Rex Ryan this season and also worked with him during his tenure with the New York Jets, will be the new quality control coach for special teams. “Kathryn Smith has done an outstanding job in the seven years she has worked with our staff,” Ryan said in a statement released by the Bills. ”She certainly deserves this promotion based on her knowledge and strong commitment, just to name a couple of her qualities.”

This hire presents a shift in narrative for the NFL, after ugly domestic violence headlines tarnished the league’s image to some degree over the last two seasons. It is also part of what appears to be a broader trend of increased female representation in authoritative roles throughout professional sports.

The Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter to be an assistant coaching intern prior to the 2015 season. Meanwhile in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the first female assistant coach in league history prior to the 2014-2015 season, and she led the team as head coach during the off-season summer league. Major League Baseball saw its first woman placed in a coaching position when Justine Siegal was hired by the Oakland Athletics as a guest instructor last year. Women have also broken into the refereeing ranks of both the NFL and NBA.

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In hiring first, woman takes this NFL position

The NFL has hired Sarah Thomas, 41, as its first female referee. Thomas has experience officiating NFL preseason games.
The NFL has hired Sarah Thomas, 41, as its first female referee. Thomas has experience officiating NFL preseason games.

Still, the world of professional sports has plenty of room for improvement. Last year the NFL received a C+ grade for its gender hiring practices from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. And that’s an improvement. “The gender grade takes on special significance in this year for the NFL in light of the Ray Rice story. While there still is a long way to go, the gender grade increase of 6% points and half a letter grade overall is significant,” TIDES director Richard Lapchick said in a statement at the time.

Also worth noting is the fact that the Bills, in addition to hiring Smith, are one of few NFL franchises with a female owner. Kim Pegula and her husband share the reins of the team. And as an Asian-American, Pegula is also one of few minorities with an ownership stake in a pro football team.