Thank you, Katie

Changing the game

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Ann Coulter, once again, has tried to insert herself into a sports conversation, making a claim that just has no grounds.

After the Super Bowl on Sunday, Coulter tweeted: “Maybe 49ers should reconsider that FIRST FEMALE COACH. #SuperBowl #KCChiefs”

Coulter is referring to the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers — the first female and openly gay coach to be in the Super Bowl.

Coulter’s tweet suggests that Sowers’ female identity makes her unfit as a coach. I can’t understand why, considering that Sowers has playing experience, coaching experience and the hunger to win — a similar resume to many of her male counterparts. A report in 2014 even found that 81% of NFL head coaches have never played in the league.

The 49ers’ stunning loss isn’t because of a woman’s presence on the field. In fact, Katie Sowers’ presence on that South Beach field should continue to be celebrated. Yes, the team she coached lost — and I won’t argue that she’s independent of that loss. Yet, being on that field Sunday marked a milestone that we should all recognize, applaud and celebrate.

For those who don’t know her story, Sowers was an avid athlete growing up, playing football in the backyard with her twin sister. Years later, she competed in soccer, basketball and track and field at Goshen College.

After graduating, she was denied a position as a volunteer assistant coach for the women’s basketball team that she was previously on because of her sexual orientation. And that was a volunteer position.

It would be six years before the college adopted a nondiscrimination hiring policy, but Sowers was long gone by then.

She had been playing in the Women’s Football Alliance, winning a world championship, coaching a youth basketball team in Kansas City and earning a master’s degree in kinesiology.

Her dedication to continue doing what she loved would pay off. Scott Pioli, the father of one of her youth players, was a former general manager for the Kansas City Chiefs. After Pioli became the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, he helped Sowers land an offseason gig working with the team’s offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, through the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.

Sowers proved that she belonged. When Shanahan took the head coaching job at San Francisco, Sowers followed him West, filling a role as a seasonal offensive assistant coach, eventually being promoted to a full-time assistant for the 49ers.

Sowers remained grateful for the invaluable opportunity when she told her supporters about her big break into the NFL in 2017. In a Facebook post, she didn’t attribute her success just to her own work ethic, or to her family and friends, or to God — instead, she emphasized to her fans the effect of her mentor and that connection into the league.

Of course, without Sowers’ drive she wouldn’t have been in the NFL. But even with her perseverance, had it not been for Scott Pioli, she may have never gotten that first opportunity.

In her post, Sowers expressed heartfelt thanks to Pioli. “Scott continues to do amazing work, opening doors and breaking down walls in the NFL that for years have shut people out,” she said.

She thanks a straight white man who sits in a seat of power within the NFL, but looks to diversify it at the same time. It is people like Pioli who can be revolutionary in these situations. They recognize their privilege and, perhaps, the absurdity of it. They see people like Sowers and see a strong coach, a leader overflowing with talent, willingness to learn and eagerness to win. These people don’t get hung up on phrases like “She’s a woman” or “She’s gay,” because they know they are meaningless and unrelated to one’s ability to coach.

We need more people like Scott Pioli who create opportunities. We also need to celebrate Katie Sowers and those like her — those who keep trekking forward to do what they love, no matter the rejection and hate they may encounter.

I can only imagine that Sowers, like any other member of the 49ers team and staff, was hard on herself Sunday night. But Sowers is a unique inspiration for many across the nation. Thank you, Scott Pioli, for allowing Sowers into a room with a glass ceiling. Thank you, Katie Sowers, for breaking that ceiling.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.