Representation like Week 3's historic matchup matters for NFL's growing female fan base

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·4 mins read

As appealing matchups go, Sunday afternoon’s game between the Washington Football Team and the Cleveland Browns doesn’t really qualify as must-watch.

But for generations of women, it will mark a watershed moment.

For the first time in the 100-year history of the NFL, there will be a female coach on each sideline and a female official as part of the crew working the game.

For the Browns, Callie Brownson is in her first year as head coach Kevin Stefanski’s chief of staff, meaning she serves as the liaison between Stefanski and pretty much everyone else in the facility, from players to public relations to football ops.

Washington’s Jennifer King is a full-season intern, working on the offensive side of the ball.

And Sarah Thomas is fairly well known at this point, now in her sixth season as a league official. She’ll serve as down judge on referee Shawn Hochuli’s crew.

Images of Sarah Thomas, Callie Brownson and Jennifer King next to each other against a gray background.
Official Sarah Thomas, right, Cleveland Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson, middle, and Washington Football Team intern Jennifer King will make NFL history Sunday. (Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

Since Bruce Arians had Dr. Jen Welter serve as a training camp assistant coach with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, we’ve slowly seen more women added to coaching staffs and front offices. Most of them are still in lower-level roles, but almost all coaching assistants have to start at the bottom before moving up, especially the ones involved in X’s and O’s.

(Although, why have you stopped at one full-time female official, NFL? The XFL’s second, abbreviated iteration had one woman on each officiating staff, a deliberate effort by someone you know well, your former head of officiating Dean Blandino. Seems it’s past time for Thomas to have company.)

Earlier this year — you know, those halcyon days pre-COVID-19 — there was another first when San Francisco 49ers assistant Katie Sowers became the first woman and first openly gay coach to be on the sideline for a Super Bowl participant.

We’re probably still a ways away from a woman becoming a coordinator or general manager. The fact that we’re even seeing something like we’ll see Sunday, well, that matters to a lot of us, especially considering the NFL’s own data says around 47 percent of its fan base is female.

Representation matters. If you’re not part of one of the communities that fall into the “marginalized” category, you may not understand. But seeing King, the first Black woman to be a full-time assistant coach in the league, fist-bumping Washington franchise quarterback Dwayne Haskins pregame and interacting with other players can be profoundly impactful for a young girl who dreams of coaching.

She knows it’s not impossible. She knows someone who looks like her is doing it.

Ditto Brownson, whom Stefanski believes in so strongly he told the Browns’ team website in January that he’d like to develop her as a head coach.

“I think she’s a go-getter. She’s self-motivated,” Stefanski said. “She’s going to put all of her energy into this gig. What’s exciting for me is ultimately I want to develop young coaches. She’s someone that has worked on the offensive side of the ball, worked on special teams, has a great knowledge of the game and I want to let her expand that knowledge and develop her as a head coach.”

Stefanski’s first full-time job in the NFL was in 2006, when he essentially served as Brad Childress’ chief of staff with the Minnesota Vikings, the role that Brownson serves for Stefanski now. He knew how the job helped him in his career and felt it was important to pay it forward.

King was a Carolina Panthers’ offseason intern in 2018 and ’19, and Ron Rivera brought her with him to Washington.

Now in her mid-30s, she told The Athletic in April that she had long ago let go of a dream of coaching football because the pathway just didn’t exist. She coached college basketball, was a police officer and a personal trainer. But she didn’t love those jobs like she loves football.

Coaching hoops for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, she’d sit outside the fence at the Panthers’ facility and listen to practice. She met Rivera early in 2018 and told him that she’d like the chance to coach in the league, and he made the offseason experiences happen. While listed as an intern with Washington, King receives the same pay as other assistants.

There will come a day, we hope, that games like the one at FirstEnergy Stadium with Brownson, King and Thomas will be the norm. In fact, later Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos play, there will be a total of three female assistants, two with Tampa Bay and one with Denver. We should still celebrate now.

For so many of us, and not so long ago, even having this day seemed like an improbability.

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