We need more women in football. Look no further than tonight’s Super Bowl for evidence. Historically, women have been relegated to the periphery of the game, most often as supplemental entertainment—whether as cheerleaders, sideline reporters, or one of a select few chosen to sing an anthem, or perform a halftime show. Meanwhile, female fans of the sport are forced to reconcile their overall absence of representation all while being pandered to (something Diana Moskovitz and Jolie Kerr deftly dissected for Deadspin recently) for the sake of profit growth.
Take last month as further evidence of how unwelcome women remain in this arena. When the Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith as their special teams quality control coach, making her the first ever full-time female coach in the NFL (a 95-year-old organization), for all the uplifting media attention she received, there was unsurprisingly still a certain amount of sexism surrounding the hire. The most blatant came from Kevin Kiley, a cohost on Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan, who went on a tirade against Smith, the worst of which included him declaring, “She couldn’t possibly be qualified to the same level that a man could be qualified to do that.”
Thank goodness for people like Katie Nolan, a stellar example of what women can achieve within the world of football. As the host of Fox Sports 1’s Garbage Time With Katie Nolan (and the popular podcast of the same name), she offers an alternative to what The Boston Globe describes as the “guffawing guys” we’ve come to expect in sports commentary. And in an attempt to educate, rather than hate, Nolan addresses the most common questions (or in Kiley’s case, naive statements) regarding Smith—namely, “Is she even qualified?” and “Why can’t I criticize her?”:
Next question, is she even qualified? Well, first I guess you have to know what a QC coach is, because be honest, you didn’t. Briefly, they watch tape, they analyze data, and they prepare reports for the coach. Kathryn Smith has worked for 13 years in the NFL and impressed the people who hired her for the gig, so yes. And then the last question, why can’t I criticize her? Good news, you can—when she’s done something worth criticizing. So far she’s been hired and is a woman. If you have a problem with either of those two things, I have bad news: [Laughs.] You’re a sexist piece of shit.
But another applicable defense of Smith was voiced 30 years ago by Goldie Hawn in 1986’s Wildcats: “You think a woman can’t be tough enough? Watch me.” And watch I did, with great delight, when I first saw Hawn give a commanding performance as Molly McGrath in the film. The creation of Michael Ritchie (Bad News Bears) and Ezra Sacks, Wildcats dared to declare that “Football had it coming,” asserting that women had every right to be involved in the sport.
The film follows Molly McGrath as she chases her dream, quitting her comfortable position coaching girls’ track at an affluent school to coach boys’ football at a rival inner-city school. At first glance, it appears to be a standard fish-out-of-water comedy, and unfortunately even prominent critics couldn’t look beyond that expected template to see the film for what it really is. Roger Ebert admonished it for keeping the focus on Hawn—as opposed to the football team—before using the rest of his column inches to throw sexist shade at the actor. Ebert panned the film, writing that “Wildcats is about how spunky Hawn is and how cute it’s supposed to be that this little woman can make all those great big football players do what she says.”
But that isn’t what this film is about. To see that, just ask of Wildcats the same questions that Nolan rhetorically posed in regard to Kathryn Smith’s real-life glass-ceiling moment. Is Molly McGrath even qualified? Yes: Remarkably, the film portrays Molly as eminently qualified from the outset. Eager to break out of her girls’ track pigeonhole, Molly works up the courage to request a JV football coaching position—a job that instead goes to Mr. Remo, the home-ec teacher. Molly complains that Remo “doesn’t know diddly-squat about football,” and she demonstrates her prowess by subjecting him to a rapid-fire quiz about gridiron X’s and O’s. So this “little woman” knows her playbook.
For her efforts, Molly is sent to an inner-city school—where guard dogs patrol the hallways—to coach a failing team that includes a young Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, in their respective film debuts. She is also the daughter of a famed coach who was “raised on football” and “knows more about the sport than anyone else.” With her aptitude for analyzing plays, the athletic ability to lap her entire team on the practice field, and the patience to navigate an initial spate of sexual harassment (complete with classic ’80s boob and crotch shots) to build a working relationship with her players, Molly McGrath can and does coach football. She confidently leads a ragtag team to a City Championship victory. And the point is not that Molly is “cute” but that she doesn’t require a penis to do her job—the crux of the comedy lies in the men’s inability to perceive this truth that Wildcats has made obvious. Molly does more than tell already capable athletes what to do; she creates a winning team by teaching them the fundamentals of the game. And Hawn convincingly portrayed this journey because she played her character as a woman capable of being both feminine and competent—at the same time!
The remarkable thing about Wildcats, reconsidering it 30 years after its release, is that the premise would still work about as well in a present-day context. That’s how little the culture surrounding the sport has evolved. In fact, the disparity is so great that the few women who have long held a prominent place in football—cheerleaders—struggle to get paid. Recently, the NFL’s cheerleaders have asserted themselves on that front, pushing for better wages. As USA Today reported on Friday, the pom-pom waving litigants are making real progress:
In the past 16 months, the Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets agreed to settlements worth more than $2.6 million combined and the guarantee of minimum-wage pay. California legislators took action, ensuring professional cheerleaders get workers’ compensation and other benefits, and New York legislators introduced a similar bill.
A pending suit against the Buffalo Bills could force NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to testify. He is a defendant because his signature is on a contract stipulating that the Bills’ cheerleaders, the Jills, are not to be paid for performing at games.
“It’s like you see with any exploited group,’’ said Hina Shah, director of the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic at Golden Gate College in San Francisco. “Once they understand what their rights are, they become empowered to do something about it.’’
Say this much for the heels who doubt Molly McGrath in Wildcats: At least they give her a paying gig. Meanwhile, the real-life league cheats women who work hard—and who do so out of a passion for football (since they’re certainly not in it for the money). If you put aside sexism and recognize the cheerleaders for what they are—the capable female colleagues of players, coaches, and the countless other staff that take the field on game day—it’s clear that they have just as much right as anyone else to be involved in the sport. The NFL of 2016 could take a lesson from the Goldie Hawn of 1986.