“There are two kinds of men among football coaches,” says Rachael Walder, who has worked as an assistant for a number of them. “The ones who believe in you and nurture you, and the ones who think you’re just an attractive ornament around the office.”
Walder is one of a handful of women who’ve taken on the unenviable challenge of breaking down barriers in that most stubborn bastion of machismo— men’s athletics. For the last five years, Walder has been trying to get a toehold on the bottom rung of the football-coaching career ladder that thousands of men have climbed before her. Her struggle, and that of those like her, shows how little progress has been made in this arena since an unlikely pioneer called Carol White made a name for women who coach male teams.
The day that white wandered onto the football field at Monroe High School in Albany, Georgia, there was no such thing as Title IX. It was 1970, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and Albany was just getting around to racial integration. White had been hired as a librarian at Monroe, the first white person on the faculty of Albany’s all-black high school. On her first morning of work, without a clue as to where to find the library, she stopped at the football field to ask for directions. When she showed up the next morning to watch practice, one of the coaches handed her a clipboard and asked her to help. It was an improbable beginning for a woman who would go on to become the first female assistant coach in Division I-A college football, and establish herself as one of the premier kicking coaches in the sport.
Two years after White stepped into the breach to help a desperate athletic program, Title IX went into effect. It’s tempting to imagine that Title IX— the federal law guaranteeing women equal benefits and treatment in federally funded athletic programs— helped pave the trail that White had blazed for female coaches, and that women athletic administrators and coaches have made the same strides as female athletes over the last 27 years. The truth is that while women athletes have slowly reaped the benefits of Title IX— more resources, increased public attention, and the rise of women’s professional athletics— female coaches at the collegiate level have seen their earning potential dwindle and their career horizons narrow.
In 1972, women coached over 90 percent of female collegiate athletic teams. By 1998, according to an annual survey of NCAA schools, only 47.4 percent of women’s teams were coached by women. As bad as those numbers are, the quantity of women among the coaching ranks of male athletic teams, which remain the crown jewel of college sports, is near non-existent. According to the NCAA survey, just 2 percent of men’s teams were coached by females in 1998. These facts bring into focus another disparity between men and women coaches. A 1997 study by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that female head coaches of Division I-A teams earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.
Beyond the simple question of gender equity, some women’s advocates worry that both male and female athletes are being robbed of important role models when they don’t get a chance to interact with female coaches. “If you preclude women and men from interacting in a cultural institution like sport, guys miss an opportunity to respect women,” says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. The NCAA, Lopiano says, “has done very little” to address the issue. “They have to affirmatively act, change their hiring practices.”
White acted affirmatively on her own behalf when she took hold of that clipboard. While working full-time as a librarian, White, who had gone through college on a music scholarship and had no knowledge of football, threw herself into her coaching responsibilities. She watched hours of game film, breaking down each element of the contests in writing without anyone to tell her whether she was right or wrong. By the end of her 15-year stint at Monroe, White was head coach of the JV team.
In what turned out to be a shrewd move, White developed an expertise in kicking and punting while at Monroe. Although she sometimes doubted her own ability, she knocked the socks off a group of coaches from Georgia Tech’s football staff when she attended a clinic at the school in 1985. Former Georgia Tech head coach Bill Curry— who eventually hired White as a graduate assistant— recalls his staffer’s description of White: “That woman knows more about kicking than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Curry says he didn’t think much about the social implications when he asked White to take responsibility for his team’s kickers and punters soon after bringing her on staff. “I didn’t think it was noble or courageous,” says Curry. “She was just the best person for the job.” White would hold that position through 1989. She now makes a living conducting a highly touted kicking clinic.
Unfortunately for people like Rachael Walder, not everybody with power in the world of football is as open-minded as Bill Curry. Walder grew up around football. She recorded statistics at her high school games, and her boyfriend played for the University of Virginia. Before long, Walder found herself acting as an informal scout for UVA. In 1994, without any coaching experience, she landed a job as a linebacker coach and assistant defensive coordinator at Montgomery Junior College in Rockville, Maryland. Although it was an exciting step, the job only paid a $1000 stipend, so Walder had to wait tables to earn her real money.
But in 1997, she made it to the big leagues— well, the bigger leagues. Walder got a job as an advance scout and assistant coach with the CityHawks, New York’s Arena Football team, which played in Madison Square Garden until last year when they moved Hartford. It was the first and only time that Walder earned a full salary as a football coach. But it was short lasting. Her boss was fired after the first season and Walder left with him. Last season, she landed another assistant position— this time with a semi-pro team, the Washington Chiefs. But that job didn’t come with a salary.
Despite her experience— and interviews at a number of topflight NCAA schools— Walder currently works for a sports apparel company in Maryland. She would like more than anything to be back on the gridiron, but Walder says she’s learned to be flexible about her aspirations. “I’d like to be a coach and get paid for it,” she says. “In reality, I will probably end up working for the NFL in a noncoaching capacity.”
Kate Pearson, who has been an assistant coach in Minnesota high school football for the last four years, thinks women offer something to the sport that their male peers can’t. “I’m kind of their mother on the field, I’m more gentle, approachable,” she says. “It’s such a testosterone fest, they need to lighten up and not take it so seriously.” But Pearson’s no softie. When players start slouching on her watch, they run laps.
A Texas native and lifetime football junkie, Pearson was a junior at the University of Minnesota when she decided to try her luck at coaching football. The idea didn’t seem so crazy after Pearson sat through one too many writing classes taught by a graduate student who barely spoke English. “If she can teach writing, then I can coach football,” Pearson said to herself. After graduating with a degree in kinesiology, she cold-called area high schools looking for a football job. Like White, Pearson got her first break from a predominantly black inner-city school in Minneapolis. She spent two years there before taking her current job at St. Louis Park High in the Minneapolis suburbs.
Pearson would like to work her way into a graduate assistant job at a four-year college, but so far she hasn’t had much luck in the job market. She faces tough competition from men with years of playing experience under their belts. It’s the old catch-22: You can’t get your foot in the door without experience. But you can’t get experience without getting your foot in the door.
Pearson refuses to call herself a feminist, and she says she’s not campaigning for anything. “I’d just like to be given a chance,” she says. To that end, she has become a quick study in the art of networking. For three years, Pearson has loyally attended the annual convention of the American Football Coaches Association— something of a frat party for the profession. Except, that is, for Pearson, who diligently works the lobby introducing herself to other coaches, joining conversations, and bellying up to the bar.
And while Pearson says some of her less respectable colleagues would still rather get a date with her than talk defensive strategies, she has managed to earn some respect. A notice on her bulletin board back home reads: “I admire your perseverance,” a compliment paid to her by a Division I-A coach who had seen her at the convention. Such kind words, and her abiding love of football, get her through the hard days.