Earlier this month, Katie Sowers became just the second woman hired by an NFL team as a full-time coach. The offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers made more history Tuesday, when she came out publicly as a lesbian in a report by Outsports, making her the first openly LGBT coach in league history.
“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” Sowers told Outsports. “There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation.”
Sowers, 31, was retained by the 49ers as an assistant wide receivers coach after she served as an intern for several months as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Coaching Diversity Fellowship. She told Outsports that her goal was “to be a head coach in the NFL or college,” adding, “I love leading people and I have a passion for this game.”
The hiring of Sowers followed a trail blazed by Kathryn Smith, who coached full-time for the Bills last season, and Jen Welter, who became the first female positional coach in the NFL as a 2015 intern with the Cardinals. “It’s groundbreaking and all that stuff, but the more normalized it is, the better it is,” Sowers told the San Jose Mercury News last week. “As a female, the more someone can ask me what I do and I say, ‘I coach football,’ the less shock on their faces will mean the better direction we’re moving.”
Sowers competed in football professionally and for the U.S. national team, excelling at a variety of positions before a hip issue ended her playing career last year. A Kansas native, she went on to become general manager of the Kansas City Titans in the Women’s Football Alliance, where her twin sister, Liz, is a standout receiver.
A 2016 internship with the Atlanta Falcons brought her into contact with Kyle Shanahan, then the team’s offensive coordinator and now head coach of the 49ers. Shanahan was impressed enough to bring her aboard as an intern with his new organization, and then to give her a full-time position, a move met with approval by San Francisco wide receiver Jeremy Kerley.
“She sits back and comes at you like anyone else would,” Kerley told the Mercury News. “I love it.”
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“With Katie’s announcement, athletes around the league and throughout sport will have a better understanding of how their words and actions impact those around them, only furthering the effort to make sport inclusive and accessible for everyone — regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, said in a statement. “While we’ve seen a growing number of athletes come out over the past 5 years, we’ve failed to see that progress on the coaching front, which makes coach Sowers’ decision especially heartening. We’re hopeful that her announcement will open the door for other coaches to follow in her footsteps.”
The NFL has yet to have an openly gay player appear in a regular season game, although several players have come out after their careers ended. Michael Sam came out before the 2014 NFL draft and was selected by the Rams before being released in the preseason.
Asked by Outsports whether either the Falcons or 49ers knew of her sexual orientation, Sowers mentioned that it came up with Atlanta assistant general manager Scott Pioli, whom she described in a Facebook post as “a close friend and mentor.” Pioli also proved invaluable to former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, who said his fears of being outed as gay had him nearing suicide a few years ago, before he opened up to the executive and experienced life-changing acceptance.
Of her experience with the Falcons, Sowers said, “I could not have asked for a more open minded and accepting group of people to work with. I never once felt judged and I was treated just like anyone would want to be treated: as a typical person working to build a career.”
Sowers said that she thought an openly gay male coach “would be accepted just like anyone else.” She added, “What most people need to remember is that the NFL is a place of work for these players and it is a job that provides for their families. They are professionals and what you will find is they act like professionals in everything they do.”