Women Carry Football Toward Equality

In the last six months, we have witnessed monumental change for women in football. This past weekend, we saw Sarah Thomas become the first woman to down judge and officiate at the Super Bowl. And for the first time, two women, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar, coached a team to a Super Bowl victory. In December of 2020 Sarah Fuller, women’s soccer goalie at Vanderbilt University, became the first woman to play a regular-season game in one of college football’s Power Five conferences by kicking off during the second half for Vanderbilt University. 

Oberlin’s Director of Football Operations and Cornerbacks Coach Alex Hanna is the only woman on the Oberlin football team’s coaching staff and she has been deeply inspired by this year’s events.

“Women have every right to be in this sport,” she said. “Seeing all these women continue to break barriers means that anyone can be a part of our sport no matter what.”

Hanna used to work for the Cleveland Browns and volunteered regularly at the youth clinic they ran. When looking at pictures from the past and taking a moment to reflect, Hanna noticed a pattern in her archived images: She was consistently the only woman among many men.

“Up until my most recent picture, I was always surrounded by men,” Hanna said. “Then I stumbled across my newest photo, and I’m in a group with a couple women who volunteered to coach and a handful of girls who signed up for the camp.”

Hanna says that they typically have had 150 campers sign up, all of whom were boys. Now they’ve had five girls join the group.

“It’s a small group of girls, but that’s five more girls than the years prior,” she said. “That number makes a difference.”

To say that football has grown more gender-inclusive in the past year is an understatement. Five years ago, the National Football League had never had a female coach in the league. Now Locust, an assistant defensive line coach, and Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, are both on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers alongside Head Coach Bruce Arians.

Arians made history this past weekend as the oldest head coach (age 68) to win a Super Bowl. He first made history back in 2015 when he hired Jen Welter, previously an intern on the team’s coaching staff, and the first woman to hold a coaching position of any kind in the NFL.

Head Football Coach Steve Opgenorth has been extremely happy to see the success stories of women in football recently and feels optimistic about the expanding number of avenues for women with aspirations in the typically male-dominated game.

“It is a profound moment watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win a championship at the highest level of our profession with a staff compromised with great diversity, and namely two full time female coaches,” he said. “It opens up another inspiring door for my daughter as she grows up in a football house.”

College second-year volleyball player Lindsey Felton has recently spent time coaching girls at her old high school in Los Angeles, and is inspired to see these barriers breaking for them.

“There is something about watching girls that you have known since they were little grow up and ultimately be better than you at the sport you both love,” she said.

Felton has always felt that if she were a man in the football world, she would be a great football player. Seeing these changes in the league over the past couple of months has made her realize that she could even be a great football player now, as herself. 

“Women are finally being seen as capable,” she said. “Even though we have always been, people just didn’t believe it.”

Head Volleyball Coach Erica Rau oversees the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee which hosts the annual “Play Like a Girl” event. For Play Like a Girl, each of Oberlin’s teams teaches local girls how to play their sport. This year the event will be held virtually, and football will be joining for the very first time. 

Rau says that in the past, the SAAC didn’t have football participate in Play Like a Girl because it had an all-male staff. With Hanna now on the football staff, the need to include the team became more clear. However, now Rau sees that football should have been participating even if there wasn’t a woman coaching.  

“The point of Play Like a Girl is to get girls excited about sports and that shouldn’t exclude football,” she said.

If Hanna has one piece of advice for any of the girls out there who are looking to play football or join a sport that’s predominantly male, she says not be afraid to be the only girl or woman there.

“Inspire other girls to do what you’re doing,” she said. “Once other girls see you, they’re going to join you. Women have each other’s backs.”