Women Coaching Men and the Obstacles They Face

Natalie Randolph sat inside Ben’s Next Door on U Street in Washington, D.C. Like most of the patrons at the bar, she was attentively watching the National Football League games on the TV screens. A conversation struck up between her and a man seated nearby.

Then the inquisition began.

“Wait, you played football? Did you wear pads? A helmet? Was it the Lingerie Football League? And you coached? So then, what’s a spread offense? Do you know the 3-technique?”

For Randolph, this is commonplace. Nearly four years since resigning after four seasons as varsity football head coach at Coolidge High School in the nation’s capital, Randolph still has to justify her knowledge and experience in the male-dominated sport — to strangers, nonetheless.

Natalie Randolph walks the sidelines during her first game as Coolidge football coach | © Jacquelyn Martin/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Natalie Randolph walks the sidelines during her first game as Coolidge football coach | © Jacquelyn Martin/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“In conversation, it always comes up,” Randolph says. “I always contemplate how to bring it up, if at all, or whether I want to omit it, but it was such a big part of my life. Most of the time, I just talk about it, then field questions for the next few minutes. It’s funny though. I take it in stride … I’m never angry or upset.”

Randolph is not alone. While the number of women coaching boys’ or men’s teams and programs is minimal — an estimated 2-3.5 percent of NCAA men’s teams are coached by women — these unique situations certainly come with their fair share of obstacles.

Julie Bell has been varsity boys’ soccer head coach at Little Falls Community High School in Minnesota since 1999, the first year of the program following a trial run as a club team. She’s coached all four of her sons — Christopher, Eric, Grant and Thomas — through the program.

One day, Little Falls was playing a conference game at St. Cloud State University. Bell exited the bus with her team and began walking through the gate, but was stopped by a security guard. He told her she needed a ticket to enter the stadium. She politely explained she was the head coach.

“It’s an assumption,” says Bell, also a physician at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health: Family Medical Center.

Bell has cited other instances where opposing coaches would approach a male assistant coach of hers, thinking they were the head coach. They would be directed to Bell, usually responding with a naïve “Oh, sorry,” before shaking her hand. Obviously that has changed since she’s become a staple with the Flyers’ program.

While these examples are essentially harmless, they’re still a never-ending problem for female coaches — let alone those who coach the opposite sex. Women who coach boys’ and men’s programs are subject to sexual harassment, gender inequality and tokenism. They are forced to constantly justify their qualifications — “What does a woman know about football? How can a woman coach my son?” — while male coaches with little to no knowledge of or experience playing sports like softball or field hockey are handed jobs around the country without question.

“Women coaches at all levels face a complex set of barriers and bias, which often result in workplace inequities,” says Megan Kahn, executive director at the Alliance of Women Coaches. “They are often held to a different set of standards than their male counterparts, they are compensated less than their male counterparts, and the number of opportunities to enter and stay in the profession are less.”

Trailblazers

Currently, there are no female head coaches of men’s professional sports teams in the United States, though in recent years, women have been entering previously uncharted territory as assistant coaches.

Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs (NBA) as an assistant coach in 2014, becoming the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the country’s four major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). The former WNBA star continued to make history; she was named Spurs’ head coach for the 2015 Summer League, where she guided the team to the Las Vegas Summer League title.

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, left, with Kings assistant coach Nancy Lieberman | © Rich Pedroncelli/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, left, with Kings assistant coach Nancy Lieberman | © Rich Pedroncelli/AP/REX/Shutterstock

While Hammon was the first woman in such a role, she would soon be joined by other pioneers across America’s top leagues.

Jen Welter became the first woman to coach in the NFL when she was hired by the Arizona Cardinals in July 2015 as a training camp intern. Welter, who coached the outside linebackers, was with the team for five weeks and three preseason games.

Cardinals training camp coach Jen Welter watches practice. | Photo by Matt York/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Cardinals training camp coach Jen Welter watches practice | © Matt York/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Nancy Lieberman, regarded as one of the greatest figures in U.S. women’s basketball, was hired as an assistant coach by the Sacramento Kings in 2015. Kathryn Smith became the first full-time female coach in the NFL when she was hired by the Buffalo Bills as special teams quality control coach in 2016. Dawn Braid became the NHL’s first full-time female assistant when the Arizona Coyotes hired her as a skating coach in 2016. Barbara Underhill is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ skating development consultant, and Tracy Tutton is a skating consultant for the Colorado Avalanche.

Texas Legends head coach Nancy Lieberman leads her team during an NBA Development League game. | © Tony Gutierrez/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Texas Legends coach Nancy Lieberman during an NBA Development League game | © Tony Gutierrez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Collegiately, there are also female pioneers in men’s programs. In fall 2016, Theresa Feaster and Brittany Miller were hired by their respective alma maters as full-time members of an NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey coaching staff, becoming the first women to do so. Feaster is the coordinator of hockey operations at Providence College, and Miller is the director of hockey operations at Boston University.

“Since the day I started, I’ve never once been treated differently, or quite honestly, even been made to think about my gender,” says Feaster, 24. “I’m a member of the staff, and I show up every day to the rink prepared to work hard and do good work. And that’s simply how I’ve approached it since day one and how I’ve been treated since day one.

“From the outside looking in, I can understand why mine and Brittany’s hirings are so unique or newsworthy, because there are simply not other women in these positions. But from my perspective, this is simply my job. I believe I was hired because Coach [Nate] Leaman and the rest of the coaching staff felt I was qualified to do the job, and do it well.”

Feaster has always been around hockey. Her father, Jay, has been general manager of the Hershey Bears (American Hockey League), and the NHL’s Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning, leading the latter to the 2004 Stanley Cup. Theresa met Providence coach Nate Leaman while at the 2012 NHL Draft with her father, and joined his program as a volunteer during her junior year.

As more women are hired into leadership positions in male-specific or male-dominated sports, it will only create a cultural shift and more balance, where such an instance isn’t viewed as an outlier.

“I know a lot of women who want to coach, but the opportunities are limited, and getting a foot in the door is the hard part,” says Randolph, now Title IX Coordinator at the District of Columbia State Athletic Association. “Part of it is the stigma from a male standpoint, and the other is women not reaching out for it for fear of being turned down. But the more it happens, the more normal it will be, and the less of a big deal it will be.”

Why coach the other sex?

Julie Bell was an athlete growing up. She participated in basketball, swimming, and track and field at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn. It wasn’t until her two eldest sons, Christopher and Eric, started playing youth soccer that Bell began seriously studying the game. She’d watch practices, learning how to run drills, how to interact with players, formations, tactics, everything. As the demand for soccer grew in the Little Falls area, a newly formed summer program needed a coach. Bell began coaching her sons past age 10 and stayed in that role as they got older.

Little Falls High started a club soccer team in 1997 to test the students’ interest. A middle-school Spanish teacher was in charge but wasn’t retained as the program gained varsity status. Up stepped Bell.

“I think I was the only one who applied, but I got the job, and the rest is history,” she says with a laugh. “I feel like sex shouldn’t deter your desire to coach either male or female. I started coaching (boys) because I had four boys. Part of me coaching was out of necessity because there was nobody else to do it, but this wasn’t for me, it was for the kids who wanted to play soccer. If I had girls, I might be coaching girls, but I can tell you there is a lot less drama with the boys though.”

Bell is constantly learning, even after all these years. She goes to coaches’ clinics and seminars. She is also a licensed referee. Anyone still want to question her credentials?

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Having a woman — let alone your mom — as your coach might be a culture shock to some. It wasn’t to Eric Bell.

“When we were on the field, whether it was practice or in a game, it was ‘coach,'” Eric says. “Once we were home it was a different story, but since she coached us for so long, we were used to it.”

Sometimes he would get heckled — jokingly by his teammates, with a little more bite by opposition — because his mother was his coach. That didn’t affect his relationship with coach or mom.

Kevin Jordan is the Little Falls Community Schools activities director. He started his role approximately at the same time that Bell began coaching the varsity boys team. He said in their nearly 20 years together, there have been no issues with Bell being a woman coaching the opposite sex.

“I think her passion is first and foremost what everybody recognizes and respects,” Jordan says. “She’s what you want in a head coach — very organized, structured, knowledgeable and relates well to the kids and parents. Our boys’ soccer program is in good hands.”

Being a football head coach wasn’t on Natalie Randolph’s mind even though she spent most of her life around the game. She was a wide receiver for the D.C. Divas of the Women’s Football Alliance — a full-contact women’s football league — from 2003-08. By 2006, Randolph was teaching science at H.D. Woodson High School. She was eventually asked to help out with the football team after the coach learned of her playing experience. She assumed she would be doing office work, but she was introduced as the wide receivers coach on the first day of preseason practice.

Natalie Randolph | © DC Divas Football
Natalie Randolph (81) played wide receiver for the D.C. Divas from 2003—2008 | © D.C. Divas Football

After two seasons as an assistant coach at H.D. Woodson, it was suggested Randolph apply for the vacant head job at Coolidge. She turned it down not once, but twice. It wasn’t until a third time that Randolph finally gave in and applied. She developed an elaborate, color-coordinated and organized plan for the program, specifically focusing on academics, and presented her direction for the program and its student-athletes at her interview. Randolph was introduced as Coolidge head coach on March 12, 2010.

Coolidge lost Randolph’s debut game 28-0 to Archbishop Carroll. Afterward, Randolph was bombarded by members of the media. People were pinning microphones to her shirt. She was being told to speak to this person, that person, look into the camera. During her tenure at Coolidge, she was featured or profiled by ESPN, Good Morning America, CNN, The New York Times, NPR, NBC Nightly News, The Washington Post and countless other media outlets.

natalie randolph headshot“I knew (my hiring) would be news, but I didn’t realize it would be that much,” she says. “I thought of myself as just ‘coach’. There were two different worlds — my reality of everyday teaching and coaching, and the outside world of me as ‘trailblazer’ that I was reminded of anytime I had to do an interview. It’s not that I didn’t see it, because it was there … it wasn’t a focus.

“I wasn’t doing it to be a trailblazer, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t about me, it was about the kids. I was there to make sure they had a good high school football experience, make something of themselves, and become productive citizens of the world.”

Joshua Dyson was a sophomore fullback/middle linebacker for the Colts when Randolph took over the program. Like a few of his teammates, Dyson had his doubts with the new hire — not solely because she was a woman, but because they knew her as Ms. Randolph, science teacher.

“I went to her and said, ‘Do you know anything about football?'” recalls Dyson, 23. “She said, ‘Yeah, I do actually,’ and we had a mature conversation where she let us know what her goals for the team were and what her background was. As immature 16-year-olds, we were shocked.”

Dyson said Randolph created a tight-knit family atmosphere with her team. A preseason camping trip in Pennsylvania only solidified it — besides workouts and training, there were team-bonding exercises and an emphasis on family and respect. The trip became tradition; Dyson and a few former teammates even volunteered on it the summer after they graduated Coolidge. Randolph and some of her players would pack into her two-door Honda Civic to visit colleges. She would bring some players with her on trips when she had speaking engagements outside of Washington, D.C.

“To a lot of us she became a second mother,” Dyson says. “Everybody embraced it and loved what she brought — her uniqueness, her energy, and the family atmosphere she created. A lot of us are still close because of that. She exposed us inner-city kids to a lot of things outside of football and outside of D.C., so her focus wasn’t just on athletics, but on our grades and who we were as people.”

What’s being done?

Former and current female coaches hope their experiences give hope to girls and other women who have similar aspirations. There are also countless organizations and groups that promote women in athletics, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, Alliance of Women’s Coaches and Women Leaders in College Sports.

“We have evidence that not only are role models critical in the advancement of women throughout roles of leadership, but female-based networks are also crucial,” says Lindsey Darvin, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in sports management with a focus on gender and sport at the University of Florida. “Men are often provided with greater amounts and larger networks — an ‘old boys network’ — within the industry given a tradition of more male leaders within sport, and women are missing out on opportunities based on a lack of connections.”

The NFL, for example, is committed to increasing the number of women in managerial roles while developing its own network. Samantha Rapoport was hired as the league’s director of football development in Sept. 2016, with a main focus of identifying qualified women, training them, and helping create a pipeline for them to land football jobs. Speaking at the league’s first Women’s Summit ahead of Super Bowl 50, commissioner Roger Goodell also announced a Rooney Rule for women in front-office jobs — meaning a woman must be interviewed before a hire was made for every managerial position or higher. (The Rooney Rule is a 2003 NFL policy where teams are required to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation positions before making a hire.)

While the world of sports is slowly headed in the right direction, gender inequality and sexism at the coaching level won’t end until women coaching men — and women, for that matter — at all levels becomes more prevalent, and a coach isn’t judged by his or her sex, but by his or her success.

“When young girls (and boys) see women in leadership positions, or in this case, head coaching positions, it has the ripple effect of empowering young girls to consider coaching as a successful, viable career option,” Kahn says. “The more we see women being supported and respected as coaches and leaders, the more we will continue to crush gender stereotypes. Leadership knows no gender. A coach should be a ‘coach’, not defined or limited as a ‘female’ coach.”

NOTE: First appeared on Culture Trip