If you do a Google image search for Jen Welter, the pictures are striking. Beneath the bulky helmet and facemask, her bright red lips and expertly made-up eyes pop. She curls a muscled bicep just enough to indicate strength and power. The feminine tone of her face seems to war with her masculine set of muscles.
This is the woman who made history last week when she became NFL’s female coach. Welter was picked up by the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern, scheduled to work with the organization's inside linebackers during training camp and the pre-season. As Welter puts it, "It's exciting to show not only women and girls, but pretty much everyone that anything is possible."
For years, media, fans, and NFL insiders speculated whether or not a woman could ever join the ranks of an NFL coaching staff. Many were, and remain, skeptical. As Mike Francesa put it on his daily talk show, “I did not think, folks, that I would see a female coach in the NFL...It’s not that she can’t know the x’s and o’s—it’s not about the x’s and o’s. It’s about the idea of how football teams are run.” For years it’s been said that women can’t coach football because they don’t play football. Welter’s resume, however, tells a different story.
Welter, who holds a master's and PhD. in sports psychology is no stranger to the barriers her gender has posed to her chosen career path; she has blasted through them before. In February, she became the first woman to join a men's professional coaching staff when the Texas Revolution (a professional indoor football team) hired her to coach the organization’s linebackers and special teams. Last year, she’d played for them as a running back, becoming the second woman in history to play in a non-kicking role for a men’s pro team. Before that, she built a career in women's football that spanned 14 years and culminated in two Team USA gold medals.
Entering the world of the NFL goes beyond the game itself. As the most lucrative and competitive sports league in the world, the NFL has its own culture. “Position coaches can be very tough on their group and that is very much a man’s world,” talk show host Francesa went on to say. “The locker room can be, you know—it’s not for everyone. It’s not for women and children.”
But including qualified and motivated women in the NFL—especially as part of the coaching staff—might be just what the league needs. It is no secret that the league has a poor reputation when it comes to its treatment of women—particularly in the last year—and including qualified women forges progress in its perception of women. Even more, Welter, who has cut her own path to the NFL, will not only bring a different way of thinking to the table, but also likely an unparalleled sense of motivation—she has everything to prove.
Still, the sentiment behind Francesa’s misgivings is understandable. We all know what he’s getting at—that a woman may not be comfortable with the harsh, sexist chatter before and after the games, the hyper-masculine team bonding. (Quick note: There’s also the obvious issue of team members in various states of undress as they shower and change. But the locker room serves as far more than a changing room; it’s become de-facto headquarters for team activity. They already welcome women in various capacities, including reporters. Men have coached women’s sports teams and worked out policies to ensure players change in private. So when I discuss locker room culture, I’m not referring to a female coach being around naked players, but being welcome at the epicenter of team activity.)
The locker room problem showcases the bigger issue with Welter as a coach: she represents a feminine presence into an otherwise masculine environment. Francesa says it himself—it’s not about her knowledge of “the x’s and o’s.” Skeptics assume Welter cannot be an effective NFL coach because her womanhood marks her as intrinsically delicate—unsuitable for a setting filled with crude language and intense interactions with players and fellow coaches.
The idea that femininity and masculinity might mark human beings as eligible or ineligible for certain roles is not wrong. Nor is it wrong for us to form communities exclusive to men or women. But athletics—even football—do not mark an area for men only. While some women may be too sensitive, too fragile, too uncomfortable for an NFL locker room, those traits don’t apply to all women, nor are they a cornerstone of womanhood.
If we used such perceptions of femininity to disqualify women from jobs traditionally deemed as a “man’s world,” I doubt we could serve in the armed forces, as firefighters, or on a police force. Beyond those careers requiring more of women physically, nearly every institution in our society has been male-only at some point. Settings from office boardrooms to college classrooms had been considered “inappropriate” for the fairer sex. (Even with the roles for women in the church and Christian organizations, we turn to Scripture’s directives rather than defaulting to cultural norms and traditions, which have at times unfairly decided women to be ineligible.)
And yet, like Francesa, I wonder if Welter can be successful in her new role for the NFL—not because I doubt her capabilities, but because despite our historical progress in gender equality, I don’t believe we have gone that far. Despite the demonstrable grit Welter has put to use throughout her career, despite the boundaries she has pushed and the success she has achieved, there are still men that discount her on the basis of (an incomplete and shallow notion of) “femininity.” I would be hard-pressed to believe this stigma does not extend to the locker room. I would be shocked—pleasantly so, but shocked nonetheless—if a team of men used to taking direction from other men equally respect Welter’s newfound authority.
Welter says it herself: “I would never step into this situation and say that you have to listen to me because I’m the coach…You have to prove yourself first.” Unfortunately, I doubt the NFL’s readiness to allow Welter to prove herself; I doubt our culture’s readiness to re-examine unfounded social stigmas that contribute in unhelpful ways to gender roles. I want to be wrong—and there are glimmers of hope.
I hope, eventually, we can see a muscled woman in makeup and football gear and not perceive a war between femininity and masculinity—but rather see a human being who embodies diverse characteristics that make her athletic and beautiful, uniquely feminine in the image of God.
Gender roles can be both helpful and hurtful, depending on the context in which they are assigned, the nature in which they’re adhered to, the truth on which they’re founded and, most importantly, whether or not they supersede someone’s humanity. When they do, we need to push against them. Regardless of whether or not she’s deemed successful, Jen Welter has already paved the way for other women to do just that.
Valerie Dunham graduated with a B.A in English from Liberty University in 2011 and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. She currently lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her family and enjoys rooting for any and every Boston sports team in her spare time. You can follow Val on Twitter at @valdoeswords.
Our expert on all things athletic, Dunham also wrote for Her.meneutics on sexism toward female fans.