It's the sport of kings.
Better than diamond rings.
The time: 1986.
The movie: Wildcats.
The plot: a single mother becomes the head coach of a high school football team in inner-city Chicago.
In 1986, it was hard to imagine movies mirroring real life in terms of a woman coaching a men's football team. Perky, blonde Goldie Hawn did her best to portray Coach Molly McGrath breaking barriers at inner-city high school, Central High. Coming from a strong football pedigree, Coach McGrath had to prove her worth in the sport to everyone, including players, fans and school administration. Widely panned, not for the premise but rather story development, the most memorable parts of the movie are a few classic lines and hilarious scenes, a young LL Cool J's “Football Rap” and the first on screen pairing of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson (no, it wasn’t “White Men Can’t Jump”).
To some, it is an otherwise forgettable movie. For others it had more significance.
Nearly 30 years later, we are on the cusp of real life mirroring the movies.
On Monday January 27th, the Arizona Cardinals named Dr. Jen Welter as “training camp/preseason intern coaching inside linebackers“. Yes, you read that right. Inside linebackers. The guys who are flying all over the place stuffing the run, covering the pass, calling coverages on the fly, going after the quarterback. The leaders of the defense, all with the meanest disposition on the field. Lambert, Singletary, Butkus, Lewis.
But this is something Dr. Welter herself knows a little bit about. “Making a good, clean tackle is one of the best feelings in the world,” said Dr. Welter in this 2014 interview (1:50 mark).
She has been a trailblazer for women in the game of football. Having made her way through women's semi-pro leagues, Welter's fame grew when she played for the (men's) Champions Indoor Football League's Texas Revolution. Not as a kicker like Kathy Ireland in “Necessary Roughness”, but as a running back and on special teams. Gunners, if you will.
Not only that, she was most recently an assistant coach for the Revs this past season.
In March i asked several NFL head coaches when we'd see a female in their ranks. @BruceArians was optimistic. Kudos for making it a reality— Andrea Kremer (@Andrea_Kremer) July 28, 2015
What's most fascinating about this move is that it is based on her knowledge and experience. As a former player, Welter has the knowledge of playing the position – she played linebacker during her women's league days. But, in a sport as complex as football, her master's degree in sports psychology and doctorate in psychology will help her to understand the nuances involved in the game itself. She'll be able to relate to both players and coaches as an equal.
Dr. Welter is the latest woman to break barriers in male-dominated sports. Last year, Becky Hammon became the first female assistant coach in the NBA for the San Antonio Spurs. Hammon also became the first to hold a head coaching position as she led the Spurs' team to the NBA Summer League title in Las Vegas earlier this month. An achievement commented on by Commissioner Adam Silver, “You need pioneers, and there's been other pioneers before her, but I think you couldn't ask for more of a complete package in terms of former player, student of the game and someone who's able to work within a strong organization like the Spurs,” said Silver (source: ESPN).
Without a doubt, there have been “pioneers” before Welter in the NFL itself. Women like Lesley Visser (first female analyst), Amy Trask (first female executive), Ariko Iso (first full-time athletic trainer) and more recently, Sarah Thomas, who became the NFL’s first female referee.
Throughout history, women have taken on the challenge of competing in what were traditionally considered male oriented sports. There's been Canada's Manon Rheaume (preseason game with Tampa Bay Lightning), Janet Guthrie (Indy 500), Babe Didriksen-Zaharias (golf), Violet Palmer (NBA referee), Julie Krone (Triple Crown – horse racing) and Angelle Sampey (NHRA). IFBB Pro Roelly Winklaar was trained by Sibil “Oma” Peeters, also “affectionately” known as The Trainer from Hell. Need more proof? Ask boxer James Kirkland how he's doing without his former trainer, Ann Wolfe.
Women have been successfully breaking the walls down in sports for quite some time. Today, the best fighter and biggest attraction in MMA is arguably Ronda Rousey, who has become the most prominent face of the UFC.
For women involved in sports, especially men's sports, it was always a question of “Do they belong?”. Did a woman belong playing a “man's” sport? Did a woman belong in a men's locker room? Did a woman belong on television sports shows? Ignorant thinking was, and still is to some degree, know your role, get back in the kitchen and the list goes on.
Women working in sports media have always faced a challenge. On one hand, there were the women who came to it via beauty pageants. As was custom in those days of the 70's, they were hired for their looks. It's one thing to be hired but It's another thing to do the job and do it well. Women like Phyllis George, a former Miss America, who became the first woman to host an NFL show when she co-hosted CBS Sports' NFL Today with legends Brett Musburger and Irv Cross. George, minus a journalism background, learned on the job and to girls growing up in the 70's, she was an inspiration.
Then there were others like Mary Garber (first female sportswriter) and Jane Chastain. American Sportscasters describes Chastain as “the first woman to work for a large network (CBS), and thought to be the first woman to do play-by-play.” Beginning her career in the 60's, Chastain worked in the chauvinistic world of sports media covering everything from baseball to NASCAR to basketball and football. “I have always been a sports fan,” said Chastain in this 2013 interview. If Chastain didn't know about a sport, she studied and learned. She worked on her craft and became an extremely well respected journalist.
She knew her stuff.
Coaches are teachers. They have to know, comprehend and demonstrate their understanding of the sport both on and off the field of play. Welter has the resume to answer the questions. Cardinals' coach Bruce Arians said today, “One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’ I really believe she’ll have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her.”
As I told @mikefreemanNFL, I expect that that players will evaluate Jen Welter on the merits. That was my experience with players.— Amy Trask (@AmyTrask) July 28, 2015
While both the congratulatory and ignorant tweets will continue to roll in over the next several days, it's important to keep something in mind. Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman has come to know Welter and her work. After doing so, Freeman wrote, “She wasn't a woman who loved football. She was a human being who loved football.”
In 2015, that's the point. Welter didn't get the job because she fit a physical appearance need. She didn't get the job because she won a beauty contest.
She didn't get the job because she's a woman. She got the job because she’s a modern day Goldie Hawn Wildcats' type of coach.
Welter got the job because, to paraphrase Freeman, she loved football.
It's the sport of kings.
Better than diamond rings.