Bills’ Kathryn Smith deserves the job—not the fuss

Kathryn Smith has worked with Buffalo Bills coach, Rex Ryan, for the past six years (Anna Stolzenberg/CP)

Kathryn Smith is the first full-time female coaching hire in the NFL. From CNN, to NFL Total Access, to The View, a wide array of outlets devoted significant attention to her hiring. But the type of press and where it is directed has me wondering how much progress her hire actually illustrates.

Smith has worked in the NFL for 13 years, the last six under Rex Ryan, yet the fact that we’ve just noticed her now is in many ways telling. There have been other women doing great work in the NFL at higher positions than hers for some time. Dating all the way back to the 1970s, Connie Carberg was the NFL’s first female scout for the Jets and is credited with finding hall-of-famer Mark Gastineau. More recently Amy Trask was the Oakland Raiders’ CEO and served on the NFL’s security committee. The NFL currently has 15 female vice-presidents including Katie Blackburn of the Cincinnati Bengals, who has been rumoured as a potential GM candidate.

The explosion of coverage around Smith feels premature and patronizing.

I’ve seen plenty of “5 things you didn’t know about Kathryn Smith” stories. The number at the beginning of the title could have been one or 100 because as a collective, media and NFL fans know next to nothing about her.

Which is pretty typical. Normally we don’t know much about NFL teams' quality control coaches in the first place. Nor are we in any position to evaluate the hiring of these coaches. The only people who can truly have metrics on Smith's performance are working internally at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Bills GM Doug Whaley told me about his thought process related to his new coach. “I was always brought up, in every organization I’ve been [in], not only to find the best player but find the best person for the job. Kathryn Smith has earned the right to coach in this league because she’s the best person for the job that she’s doing for the Buffalo Bills. So we respect that,” he said.

Overwhelmingly the coverage has been positive, but predictably there have been detractors. Cleveland radio host Kevin Kiley displayed the latter. “Football is about physical advantage,” Kiley professed. “Women are at a loss when it comes to the reference points of football. This is not discrimination against women. I don’t care if a woman is president, that’d be great. I don’t care if a woman runs a corporation, that’d be great. But don’t set people up to fail.”

He made a similar statement against the possibility of female officials in the past.

On Twitter, some characterized Smith as a glorified secretary. Don’t be fooled by the fact that she has administrative duties on her resumé. Rex Ryan was impressed with her ability to dissect film. That's why he brought her from New York to Buffalo. And she will have real responsibility. On the field she’ll be working with punters and kickers. As a quality control coach she’ll be in charge of coaching up the scout team to give the starters an accurate look in terms of what they can expect on Sundays. Players don’t like to be on the scout team, especially on special teams. She will need to command respect to keep those players engaged while maintaining the attention to detail necessary to maintain high-quality reps. Quality control is a real job that often leads to much bigger opportunities. The list of notable former quality control coaches includes Todd Haley, Raheem Morris, Eric Mangini, Kyle Shanahan, Brad Childress, Steve Spagnuolo, and Tony Sparano.

Plenty of women now working in the NFL followed a similar career path to Smith's up to now and have gone on to climb up the ranks. Jacqueline Davidson is the Jets' director of football administration. She is the team’s lead negotiator on player contracts and manages and forecasts the salary cap. Dawn Aponte is the Miami Dolphins executive vice-president of football administration. As well as negotiating contracts and managing the team’s budget, Aponte is also the team’s liaison on league affairs. She’s worked in the league for 25 years, six of which were with Miami.

They aren’t the only female executives in the NFL but they are among the best, regardless of gender. The problem is that the first time you’ve hard of them is likely in this article.

Many women have been involved at the ownership level. The Bills are a great example of this. In Buffalo, Kim Pegula is very hands-on, even though her husband, Terry, is more often referenced with the team.

So when Kathryn Smith is covered in a celebratory fashion and these powerful women remain in the shadows, what does it say about how we really feel about women working in sports? Does it mean we want to feel like we are evolved, as if it is a badge of honour? Do we want to be first to favourite a tweet and re-post on Facebook in order to wave the flag of women’s rights as if to say, “Hey look at me, women’s inclusion is part of my personal brand!” Does it mean we want to fight so hard against the uneducated Kevin Kileys of the world that we unintentionally advocate the opposite just to spite him? What does it say about what we expect women to accomplish?

I’m not above reproach as I wrestled with all of this during a chance meeting with Smith when I was in Buffalo to interview Bills GM, Doug Whaley. My knee-jerk reaction was to congratulate her, only to sheepishly follow up with, “Although I’m not sure what I’m congratulating you for as you haven’t changed. You are doing the same work you have always done.” She graciously said, “Thanks. I understand where both sentiments come from." She then put her head down and went back to work, cutting up film, displaying a coach’s mentality.

Whaley wished her hiring wasn’t news. “I hope that we as a society and a world can get to the point where we aren’t talking about Kathryn Smith. I hope that’s a non-story five years from now,” he said. “I hope the story is she’s a Super Bowl–winning coach, or that I’m a Super Bowl–winning GM, and it has nothing to do with race or gender or anything like that.”

Few people likely know that the NFL actually has an infrastructure in place, which may mean, hopefully, that in five or 10 years, a woman being a coach will be a non-story. First order of business is populating the pool of candidates with qualified female applicants. Each member club identifies a woman to send to a leadership seminar. In recent years, the NFL has started coaching clinics for women all across America. For many years they’ve tried to get women into the officials’ pipeline. Sarah Thomas became the NFL’s first full-time referee this season and many others are coming up the ranks in high school.

What will also help is if more women are in roles involved in the hiring process. To this end, the league is holding a conference at this year's Super Bowl featuring keynote speaker Condolezza Rice and including Anika Sorenstam, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams. The summit will be hosted by Roger Goodell’s wife, Jane Skinner Goodell, with the aim of bringing together women leaders and CEOs to see how they can make those types of jobs available to more women in sport.

Despite these efforts the topic of making football gender neutral seems to only be of interest when conveniently packaged as breaking news. Wouldn’t a broader, more nuanced conversation be more lasting than #KathrynSmith trending for 24 hours?

When someone breaks through barriers they generally have to be twice as good, but Kathryn Smith doesn’t need twice the attention. What we need is to multiply the conversation about why there aren’t more Kathryn Smiths, while at the same time treating her the same way we treated her predecessor, Michael Hamlin. Like every other special teams quality control coach, she was hired to help her team win and that’s all she wants to do.