Coolidge Senior High School lost its first varsity football game of the 2010 season. It would have been just another night at just another stadium in any other part of the country, except it wasn’t. The mayor was in attendance. The game was televised on ESPN. Throngs of reporters for national news outlets were there, demanding answers postgame. The coach was forced to hold a press conference to explain the loss.
What would have been any other lost game was different because the varsity football coach for Coolidge is a woman, described in press reports as a “petite” biology teacher with a “soft voice,” a woman who, when her hiring was announced in March, sparked a national conversation about whether a female was fully capable of coaching a boys’ football team.
The Varsity Blues
To anyone who questions whether Title IX is really necessary, to anyone who doubts that women still face incredible obstacles in following their dreams, and to anyone who doesn’t believe that sexism is alive and well in this country, please accept Natalie Randolph’s story as proof.
Coolidge, a public high school in Washington, D.C., hired Ms. Randolph in March to coach its varsity football team. Before that, she spent three years as an assistant coach of another boys’ high school team in D.C. The thirty-year-old Randolph was a track star while she attended the University of Virginia, and after college she played as a wide receiver for the D.C. Divas, a team in the Independent Women’s Football League. (A full-contact league, by the way.) In her last season on the team, the Divas even won the league championship. So she’s not really just a soft-voiced biology teacher. She adores football and is eminently qualified to coach a high school football team—probably more qualified than many other high school football coaches are.
But her team lost its first game. Disappointing, but not all that unusual, considering that half the other high school teams around the country lost their first games, too. Yet the national media pounced on the story as if her team’s loss (20–0 to another local school) was evidence that women are just no good at sports and shouldn’t try. Or perhaps it’s evidence that boys won’t listen to women coaches. Or perhaps it’s evidence that girls just can’t play “man sports” like football. But why can’t the answer simply be that it was the first game of the year, and the team itself might not be all that great? They did go 6–4 last year, after all.
I am the same age as Ms. Randolph. We grew up during a time when we were routinely told that a woman could do anything she set her mind to; she could pursue any career path, follow any dream. We grew up watching Sally Ride, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Margaret Thatcher break down barriers. But we can’t forget that it was only in 2010 that a woman first won an Academy Award for Best Director, and it was only in 2008 that a woman first became a viable presidential candidate. There are no professional sports teams coached by women. The only college teams with female coaches are female teams. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, only about 43 percent of female college teams have female coaches, a number that has only decreased in recent years.
Twice the Effort, Two-Thirds the Pay
The fact is that unless we’re talking about parenting, teaching, or another traditionally “female” realm, women’s contributions to the workplace and to society at large are often treated with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was reduced to discussions of cankles. Pundits questioned whether Sarah Palin was capable of being both the vice president and an adequate mother to her children. CBS anchor Katie Couric was criticized for falling ratings, even as ratings fell for all news programs on all networks. Some accused South African runner Caster Semenya of not even being a real woman at all. Movie critics marveled that a woman was able to capture the spirit of wartime soldiers in a film like The Hurt Locker, as if women and our lady brains were only capable of holding opinions about chocolate, Sex and the City, and breastfeeding. No one questions whether men are able to be proficient teachers, nurses, or gynecologists, but women are frequently ridiculed for not having what it takes to succeed in business, politics, or sports. That’s sexism in its barest, baldest form.
Of course, that assumes that they’re exceptional enough to become even marginally successful or notable in one of those fields. Women notoriously have to work twice as hard for less recognition and rewards in high-powered or masculine careers. Consider how many high school football coaches across the country are just teachers who enjoy football and had some extra time, yet for a woman to hold the same position, she has to be an actual former professional football player. A female is all but required to have experience and qualifications that are at least double what a male counterpart would be required to have. Or, you know, she has to be really, really hot.
Natalie Randolph, while inspirational for working in a traditionally male profession, should not be held to higher standards than any other high school football coach, and shouldn’t attract any more attention than other coaches for the simple act of doing her job. Neither should she be held to lower standards—some women are bad at their jobs just like some men are. True equality goes both ways.
It doesn’t matter how many times we say, “People should be judged on their merits, not on their sex or skin color.” The fact that our society continues to have this conversation at all shows how far we still have to go toward achieving true equality. That will be the day when a female football coach is seen as ordinary—boring, even—and women have the freedom to stumble, fail and even be mediocre without being forced to serve as a cipher for all of womankind. Womankind didn’t lose that football game; Ms. Randolph did. And who really cares, anyway? (It is just a high school football game, after all.) But womankind does lose whenever the limitations of one person are ascribed to an entire sex. And that happens a whole lot.
We’ve got a long way to go, baby.