When the San Francisco 49ers play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV February 2 in Miami, it will mark the first Super Bowl appearance by a woman coach and one who is an out member of the LGBTQ community.
Both of those groundbreaking designations go to one person, Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant coach with the 49ers. Sowers, 33, who is a lesbian, has been with the 49ers for two years and in the NFL for four. She was the third woman and the first openly LGBTQ person to have a full-time position on an NFL coaching staff.
“No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” Sowers, told Outsports in a coming-out interview in 2017. “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.
“The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”
While that interview marked her public coming-out, Sowers had been out in her private life for some time. She had always loved football, playing the game while growing up with her twin sister, Liz, but there were few opportunities for women to play organized football. So she participated in basketball, soccer, and track and field at Goshen College, a Christian school in Indiana.
After she graduated in 2009, she hoped to coach as a volunteer at the college but was told she could not do so because she’s a lesbian. Goshen College released a statement Wednesday saying the discrimination was wrong, the Goshen News reports.
“We are very proud of all that our alumna Katie Sowers ’09, an assistant coach for the Super Bowl-bound San Francisco 49ers, has achieved in her life and the ways that she leads on and off the football field with authenticity, grace and excellence,” Goshen College President Rebecca Stoltzfus said. “She has publicly shared her journey to coaching, including the barriers she faced related to her sexual orientation when seeking a volunteer coaching position at Goshen College. Sadly, in 2009, our policies and the laws of Indiana allowed for hiring decisions to consider sexual orientation. I am glad that Goshen College adopted a new nondiscrimination policy in 2015, and I am thankful for the leaders before me who brought this change about, not the least of whom were our students and alumni.
"Our new vision states: ‘Being rooted in the way of Jesus, we will seek inclusive community and transformative justice in all that we do.’ While we cannot go back and change history, justice calls us to stand up now and say that the way Goshen College treated Katie’s offer to coach was hurtful and wrong. I express on behalf of the institution our profound apologies to Katie Sowers and to all others who have not been welcomed here, simply because of who they are. And I want to personally thank all of our students, employees and alumni who call us to be and do better.”
But things turned out fine for Sowers, she noted in a November interview with NBC Sports Bay Area (watch below). She had found out about the Women’s Football Alliance and joined one of its teams, the West Michigan Mayhem. She became a member of the 2013 U.S. Women’s National American Football squad that won the International Federation of American Football World Championship.
She also spent some time as athletic director for the city of Kansas City and coached youth basketball there. One of her players was the daughter of Scott Pioli, who had been the Chiefs’ general manager and would soon join the Atlanta Falcons as assistant general manager. They became friendly, although Sowers worried at first that he might be homophobic.
“What I failed to realize I was grouping him into a box. Here’s this high-up NFL executive and how’s he going to react?” Sowers recently told The Guardian. “Knowing his heart and his desire to help people was something I never thought could be possible in everything I assumed about that culture.”
Pioli was impressed with Sowers’s football expertise, the Falcons offered her a fellowship for minority coaching candidates in 2016. “I was embraced on day one” on the job, she recalled in the interview with The Guardian. Atlanta’s offensive coordinator at the time was Kyle Shanahan, and when he later became the 49ers’ head coach, he hired her there.
Sowers has won respect in the league, as she “is part of an offensive coaching staff that has seen the Niners become one of the more dependable outfits in the entire NFL,” USA Today notes.
“She’s been tremendous,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo told reporters after the team won its Super Bowl slot. “Katie was here before I was, but just what she does with the receivers, all the skill position guys, how she interacts with them. It’s special. She’s feisty, man. Katie is awesome out there. She’ll get after guys. ... It’s fun to be around.”
Sowers has also become an advocate for other LGBTQ people and women in sports. She persuaded the 49ers to start a Pride fan club, and she regularly posts about her girlfriend on social media. She does frequent public speaking engagements as well.
There are now eight female full-time coaches in the NFL, according to The Guardian. “The case for female coaches will only grow stronger if Sowers is soon sporting a Super Bowl ring,” the publication notes. “Then perhaps we’ll be nearer to an NFL where we dispense with the moniker ‘female coach’ and just say ‘coach.’”