Playing with the Big Boys

How Katie Sowers and Other Female Coaches Have Won Over Players in Men's Sports

by Sara Ventiera

Financial Frequency. myInspiration

January 31, 2020 .7 min read

When Katie Sowers got hired as an assistant by the San Francisco 49ers in June 2017, she knew she had to prove her worth in an extremely competitive field, where many are wary of those who never played in the NFL. 

Being a woman, and openly gay, maximized the degree of difficulty.  

The team’s ownership embraced her hiring and said all the right things about adding diversity to its coaching staff. But winning over the players in this hyper-masculine, conservative culture posed an entirely different challenge for her. 

This is about how she did just that.

And with Sowers having become the first female coach for a Super Bowl team, her approach, and that of women in the NFL and NBA, provides a blueprint for gaining acceptance in men’s professional sports, not to mention other industries. All at a time of intense focus on pay inequality, sexual harassment and mistreatment in the workplace -- and the value of inclusive employment.  

Sowers began by getting to know wide receiver Pierre Garçon, an NFL veteran who came to the 49ers the same year she did. He wasn’t sure what to make of her.

“When you first walk in and meet her, you know she’s a woman,”

he told myWorth.

“You try to be more respectful.” 

Garçon was an established star in the latter part of a great career, known for his astute route running and on-the-field savvy. Then 31, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Garçon had played nine years in the league before the 49ers signed him as a free agent. 

The team desperately needed someone to help its receiving corps, a persistent weakness. The Haitian-descended Garçon, who grew up in West Palm Beach and played for the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, seemed like the right player for the job.

He’d already piled up 7,068 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns in his career. He appeared in six playoff games, including the Colt’s 30-17 win over the Jets in the AFC championship game in 2010, when he caught 11 passes for 151 yards and a score. The Colts went 16-2 that year but lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl, when Garçon had his team’s only receiving TD.

Sowers, responsible for working with the 49ers wideouts, understood the value of that experience, he said. But when Garçon first saw her in a meeting room, he worried about having to censure himself, to avoid offending with typical but objectionable “football talk.”  

The two began reviewing films of other teams together. Garçon recalled watching with her the moves and tactics of players he would be facing in upcoming games against the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

He found himself spending hours in Sowers’ office, debating the skills of various quarterbacks and defensive backs. Coaches and teammates took notice that this respected veteran was bonding with their new coach. They saw Garçon rely on Sowers and appreciate her point of view.

“Millions of times, they would walk by her office and see us watching films,"

he said.

All that time together led to more personal conversations. The two discovered they were nearly the same age, having been born just one day apart in 1986 — he on Aug. 8, she on Aug. 9. Garçon, oddly fascinated by twins, was thrilled to discover Sowers has a twin sister, Liz.

“We just talked about everything,”

Garçon said.

“It was a real friendship. Us Leos stick together.” 

A turning point came in October 2017 after Carolina QB Cam Newton was called out for making a sexist remark in response to a woman beat writer asking him about the routes of his receiver, Devin Funchess.

“It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,”

Newton said. He later apologized for the comment.

But Sowers’ boss, head coach Kyle Shanahan, indicated no such bias was in play on the 49ers.

“We definitely have a woman who talks about routes all the time,”

Shanahan said during a press conference.

“I think our players definitely listen to her.” 

Sowers posted that quote on her Instagram account under a photo of her standing next to Garçon. It garnered 1,280 likes.

Other players spoke up as well. Kendrick Bourne, a teammate of Garçon, pointed to Sowers’ calm demeanor and empathetic nature, saying she helped him and other receivers deal with stress.

"I had two drops my first two targets, and she calmed me down,"

Bourne said. 

"Just telling me to not get too overhyped and get over my head about it,”

he told ESPN

“I'm supposed to be there. She just gave me that reminder, and I ended up going off that. So, I always go back to that when she just calmed me down and mellowed me out. I was beating myself up about the drops, and she kind of came over and gave me that little push. I will never forget that. I tell her to this day how much that helped me.”

Bourne has gone on to play a key role in the 49ers Super Bowl run with 358 receiving yards  and a career-high five receiving touchdowns this season. He caught a three-yard TD against the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter of the NFC divisional round playoffs.

Sowers said she relies on empathy to deflect the sometimes crude language and degrading stereotypes of an NFL locker room.

“One thing you’ll find out about the game of tackle football is that it’s one of the most feminine-hating [environments],”

Sowers told a summit on women empowerment last year. 

“If you think about the language that’s used. Everything that’s stereotypical of a woman. You’re soft. You’re not aggressive. You hit like a girl. You throw like a girl. Football is just so masculine-driven, but you have to forget all that and just be who you are.”

Sowers believes offensive language stems from ignorance, and often, people

“just don’t know what they’re saying,”

she told the conference, a gathering of the SheBelieves campaign, which started with the U.S. women’s soccer team in 2015. 

“If we come at it very defensive and ready to fight, ready to tell them they said something wrong, you become a person where they can’t be themselves around you,”

she said.

Sowers gave the audience an example of her approach. A male co-worker walked up and said,

“That’s gay,”

referring to something a colleague had done. She coolly asked,

“Why, because it  likes boys?”

The man stumbled over his words, saying that’s not what he meant.

“He never said it again,”

Sowers said.

“If I would’ve come at him like, ‘You’re homophobic’ or whatever, I don’t think he would’ve felt like I’m a safe person to talk to.”

It took time but eventually the 49ers as a team became accustomed to having a woman around, and players grew comfortable being themselves with Sowers, Garçon said.

“She blends in easily with us.”

Katie Sowers and the San Francisco 49ers.

Scott Pioli, who gave Sowers her first NFL internship with the Atlanta Falcons when he was assistant GM, says he recognized she had become an accepted member of the coaching community when he saw her talking strategy and being “football physical” with Shanahan in 2016 back when he was offensive coordinator for the team. 

Shanahan and Falcons receivers coach Raheem Morris were jostling and grabbing each other’s arms while explaining a technique. They started doing the same with Sowers, who was an intern. As an experienced scout adept at reading body language, Pioli picked up on the sense of ease that had developed between the trio. 

“It was just football people being football people and not worrying about some of the unnecessary stuff we worry about between the genders,”

Pioli told myWorth.

She also scored points by creating her own easy-to-understand cheat sheet, a neatly organized packet that summarizes the 49ers’ offensive concepts and helps her retain information from the team’s complex playbook.

She shared the packet with her fellow coaches and the players, just one of the ways she’s tried to add value to the operation.

“I’m bringing my personality daily, and that’s what I focus on,”

Sowers said.

“I think everybody receives that really well in the organization.” 

Pioli, Sowers’ mentor, thinks her calmness during scouting meetings has fostered more thoughtfulness among her colleagues. Other scouts have become more articulate in their reports about players’ physical, mental and emotional attributes, he said.

“Rather than throwing out a crude adjective or pronoun, someone said, ‘This wide receiver doesn't have a willingness to block and be aggressive — he only wants to run and catch passes,’”

Pioli said.

“It made them better at their jobs.”

Lindsay Gottlieb, an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, said players respond well to coaches who genuinely care about them and focus on helping them get better on the court.

“I’m leery to characterize these as uniquely feminine,”

she told MyWorth.

“These are qualities I hope make me successful as a coach.”

With eight NCAA tournament appearances, one Final Four and 20 years of coaching Division I teams under her belt, Gottlieb has been surprised by what she’s seen in the NBA, which has

“incredibly progressive players,”

she said. 

Even so, some assumptions haven’t changed. She said she’s been asked to show her credentials at opposing arenas when her fellow male coaches haven’t. She’s also been mistaken for a trainer when wearing team gear in a hotel. 

Like Sowers, Gottlieb doesn’t let these slights bother her. She thinks they provide opportunities to open people’s eyes to women coaching in men’s sports, even as females comprise a tiny minority. 

Image courtesy of Katie Sowers Instagram, @katiesowers5

This NFL now has eight women coaches, including four full-timers. The NBA has 11, and on Jan. 21, the San Francisco Giants hired the first female assistant coach in major league baseball history, Alyssa Nakken. 

A key to them being effective leaders is knowing themselves and playing to their strengths, according to researchers at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University  — something Sowers and Gottlieb credit as a big part of their success.

“The two most important things of being female in a male-dominated room: You have to be authentic because people can sniff out right away if you’re trying to be something you’re not,”

Gottlieb said.

“Second, you have to know your stuff.”

Dealing with prejudice comes with the territory, both in sports and in general. 

Across the board, nearly two-thirds of women experience “microaggressions” in the workplace, defined as intentional or unintentional sexism or racism, often being forced to provide more proof of their competence than men or having a co-worker assume they are more junior than they actually are, according to a report by McKinsey & Co., “Women in the Workplace 2018.”  

The study found that one in five women say they are often the only woman in the room at work. Among senior-level women and women in technical roles that number jumps to about 40 percent.

Known as “onlys,” these women are nearly twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers and are “more likely to have their abilities challenged, to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks, and to feel like they cannot talk about their personal lives at work,” the report said. 

“The pressure is great,” Deborah Antoine, CEO of Women’s Sports Foundation, told MyWorth of women who coach men’s teams.

“There’s so much focus and attention on you, you have to be really, really exceptional.”

For Sowers, the odds against her are stacked even higher, according to statistics. A whopping 71 percent of lesbians have dealt with everyday discrimination at work, the McKinsey study found. They are far more likely to be subjected to degrading comments.

Sowers has overcome the odds, and, in the process, built a following of loyal fans. 

One of them will definitely be cheering for her Sunday during the Super Bowl.

“I hope she continues to strive in this industry that barely gave her a chance,”

Garçon said.