Trailblazing femininity into the future of sports

The Super Bowl story that transcends the field

Michael Sicoli, Opinion Editor

The Super Bowl is a perennial spectacle that engulfs America’s attention one Sunday a year by having millions of people tune in to watch the teams battle it out for the title of NFL’s best. As it turned out, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers smashed Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs 31-9.

But that wasn’t the story to watch.

Football has long been touted as “a man’s game”— an outdated and sexist title. Well, there were eight female coaches in the NFL this season. And six were on playoff teams. With National Girls and Women in Sports Day this past Feb. 3, the story of Super Bowl LV was not about the men on the field but the women on the sideline.

This past weekend, we saw women smash the gender barrier in sports. Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate the Super Bowl. Assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar of Tampa Bay are the first pair of female coaches to reach the Super Bowl, let alone doing so on the same sideline.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers presented one of the most fiercest defensive fronts in the league this year with a team that improved as the season went on, finishing the regular season with four straight wins to make the playoffs before beating the league’s best en route to a Super Bowl victory.

Infographic by Connor Lawless

It would be naive to say these two coaches were the sole reasons behind this feat. But it would be ignorant not to recognize their roles in it.

Locust is in her second season with the Buccaneers, working with the defensive line in both seasons. In 2019, the Buccaneers produced the No. 1 rushing defense. In 2020? No. 1 again. Locust was the league’s first female position coach. She played football until right before she turned 40 when she suffered a serious knee injury. That converted Locust’s passion for the game as a player toward coaching.

She struggled to find paid coaching gigs — high schools weren’t paying up, and she couldn’t get to the higher level. She traveled to football seminars, attending when she could and hovering around when she technically couldn’t.

Locust slept in her car when money dried up and she started spending meal vouchers for herself. She did everything she could to support her family as a mother of two while chasing her dream.

After shadowing a coach at Dartmouth College, she landed a coaching internship with the Baltimore Ravens. From there, she became a defensive line coach for the Birmingham Iron, a team in the then-newly formed Alliance of American Football (AAF). With coaching experience under her belt, Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians brought her on to his staff.

Javadifar is the daughter of two Iranian immigrants, growing up in Flushing, New York. She played college basketball at Pace University where she earned her doctorate in physical therapy, the inspiration for which spawned from her own torn ACL. The combination of her qualifications as a strength and conditioning coach with the physical therapy degree helped her stand out among candidates for the position.

Locust and Javadifar are two coaches, Super Bowl victors at that. But more importantly, they are people. Their contributions were consistently felt by others on the staff.

“It’s great because you sit down and you hear they’re women coaches, but then you get into the meeting room with them and they’re just coaches,” Buccaneers inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell told the Tampa Bay Times. “You get into the weight room and all of a sudden you’re being taken through a drill that you’ve never heard of before and it makes so much sense to you.”

Maral Javadifar (right) and Lori Locust’s success in sports represents a growing trend of diverse coaching staffs. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

These women represent a growing trend in sports. Just a month ago Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs became the first woman to act as a head coach in an NBA game after head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected. Last year’s Super Bowl featured the San Francisco 49ers’ Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant, who became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl. Alyssa Nakken of the San Francisco Giants became the first woman coach in MLB history this past season, and in July was the first to coach on field during a major league game. Kim Ng of the Miami Marlins is the first woman general manager of any major professional men’s sport team in North America after being promoted in November.

Nearly a century ago that American women received the right to vote, let alone hold a prominent position in America’s game. Sports have long reflected the institutions of this country, from the gradual desegregation of sport to the eventual acceptance of peaceful protesting on an NFL field — acceptance, of course, by the NFL, not necessarily by fans or owners. But when progress is seen in sport, it should be cherished and acknowledged. It goes beyond sports. It changes societal norms and expectations.

Tampa Bay’s success this past year has largely been attributed to acquiring Brady. Fair enough. Adding the most successful quarterback to ever take a snap tends to add some wins to the record. But the Buccaneers also touted one of the most diverse coaching staffs in the league.

It is the only franchise in which all of its coordinators are Black — assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. There’s the aforementioned dynamic duo of Locust and Javadifar and the 82-year-old offensive assistant Tom Moore.

Arians emphasized the quality of each of these coaches were paramount to race, age, gender or any other factors outside the realm of football. But he knew the importance of different perspectives when it comes to coaching.

“To hear voices in a staff meeting that aren’t the same — don’t look alike, but they all have input — you get better output, and for the players the same thing,” Arians said on Zoom. “Not hearing the same thing over and over. To hear it from different people, different ages — from 27 to 82 — and every kind of ethnic group there is, and male and female, I think our players learn from that. I know I do.”

The NFL has long been scrutinized for its lack of diversity, as have many major sports leagues. With only two minority head coaches added in this year’s hiring group (Robert Saleh by the New York Jets and David Culley by the Houston Texans), it left some highly qualified options like Kansas City’s Eric Bienemy and Tampa Bay’s Leftwich and Bowles to stay behind as coordinators.

Bienemy, a long-touted candidate for a head coaching position, didn’t get interviewed by the Philadelphia Eagles. Bowles, a productive coordinator with prior head coaching experience with the New York Jets, had his interview with the Detroit Lions canceled. Leftwich didn’t even get an interview, period.

There’s still a lot of ground to be made up. The NFL is far from perfect and so is America. But seeing these trailblazers inspire the next generation, as well as their own, is a promising development that deserves recognition. The inspiration for little girls around the country who never considered football as a career path because of the way the game has been branded. That inspiration for our cousins, our sisters, our daughters.

“I do look forward to the day when it’s no longer newsworthy to be a woman working in the pros or making the Super Bowl for that matter,” Javadifar told reporters on Zoom. “I hope we get to the point where all people are affording equal opportunity to work in professional sports.”