Former NFL coach and Kansas native Katie Sowers: No running from politics of gender, LGBTQ+ in sports
photo by: Kansas Reflector screen capture from the Dole Institute’s YouTube channel
Goshen College multi-sport athlete Katie Sowers was denied a role as volunteer assistant basketball coach by administrators at the Mennonite-affiliated private school because she was gay.
Sowers, who grew up in Hesston, Kansas, had completed her basketball eligibility at Goshen after four years as a captain. She never considered the college would turn aside one of their own during the don’t ask, don’t tell era of LGBTQ+ campus politics. Her objective was to build a coaching resume in 2009, not grandstand on political issues of the day.
Her basketball coach called her to his office. He said that because she was a lesbian, she wasn’t welcome around the team in a coaching capacity.
“I remember him saying, ‘It’s nothing personal.’ And, he gave me a hug,” Sowers said during the annual Elizabeth Dole Women in Leadership program honoring Sowers at the Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “I called my mother right away. I was crying and I told her about it. And, you know, her positive personality: ‘It’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine.’ We hung up and I remember she called me right back, and she was crying, and she said, ‘It’s not fine. I’m so sorry that happened to you.'”
Sowers was convinced her prospects of a coaching career were smashed, but news of her demise was premature.
She later worked as athletic director in the Kansas City parks department and agreed to take on an extra chore as coach of a basketball team of elementary school girls. The father of one player was Scott Pioli, who was general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to 2012.
Pioli was employed from 2014 to 2019 as assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, where he professionally reunited with Sowers. Sowers went on to work for three NFL teams over a five-year period.
“I didn’t known when I walked into that basketball gym that … was going to change my life — that those girls were going to change my life,” Sowers said. “It wasn’t going to be until about three or four years later that I would actually get my first job with the Atlanta Falcons.”
From NFL to NAIA
While a student at Goshen, Sowers began her tackle football career with the West Michigan Mayhem in the Women’s Football Alliance. She played football until a hip injury forced her into retirement in 2016. That’s the year she joined the Falcons as a wide receivers coaching intern.
In 2017, she received a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with the 49ers and publicly came out as a lesbian. She was later hired by San Francisco as a full-time assistant coach. She also was on the coaching staff of the Chiefs in 2021.
Sowers left the NFL when appointed director of athletic strategic initiatives at Ottawa University. She coaches — with her twin sister Liz — the women’s flag football team at Ottawa, which has won three NAIA championships in what will become an Olympic sport in 2028.
Sowers, who was raised in the small Mennonite community of Hesston, developed familiarity with college sports at a young age. Her father was the women’s basketball coach at Bethel College from 1989 to 1999, and she would tag along at practices. Her mother was director of nursing at Hesston College.
In her youth, Sowers could imagine a career in teaching or counseling as an adult. Not coaching.
“You don’t know that you can do something until you see it. Even when I started playing tackle football, I never thought coaching football was an option,” she said.
Politics of listening
Sowers cringed at political attacks on transgender youth who drew ire of lawmakers by simply taking part in athletic competition.
She didn’t buy the argument of people advancing laws in Kansas and other states that saving women’s sports from transgender people in preschool through college required a statute limiting people to teams based on gender identification at birth.
“Why are we using this idea that we’re protecting women’s sports when we know that’s not,” Sowers said. “For me, I’d rather die knowing that I was maybe too accepting of a trans athlete because it provided them a chance to play.”
She said political issues couldn’t be separated from sports. The act of coaching required skills in communication, including listening, that should be emulated by politicians who seem to be in a perpetual state of conflict, she said.
“This world we live in is so divided,” she said. “Pick this side. Pick that side. You know, you’re either right or you’re wrong. Politics plays into sports because it teaches you to listen, if you actually use it correctly.”
Sowers said it was easier to be openly gay as an NFL coach than as a participant in college sports. Professional football athletes put their job on the line daily and there were hundreds of people eager to take their place on the roster, she said. If an assistant coach, gay or not, could help a player improve on the field “they didn’t care who you are,” Sowers said.
“You don’t need a certain chromosome to be able to teach football,” she said. “If there is anything you get out of this, reflect on the biases that you have. The unconscious biases because we are in the way of equality. Every single one of us. We need to check ourselves. Once we can realize that we all have room for growth, I think we’ll see an enormous jump in the way society views women in this field.”
— Tim Carpenter reports for Kansas Reflector.