The Pittsburgh Steelers have through the years often been at or near the forefront of many of the key social conversations surrounding the NFL. Joe Gilliam, for example, was the first black quarterback to start a season in the NFL, the premiere football league. Scout Bill Nunn provided a key pipeline among the historically black colleges for previously untapped talent. The Rooney Rule is a well-known though controversial part of this legacy.
Another one that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot is the fact that the Steelers were just the first organization in the NFL to hire a woman as a full-time athletic trainer, hiring Ariko Iso in 2002. She remained with the team until 2011 when she became the head athletic trainer at Oregon State.
She was replaced by Sonia Ruef, who became the second female full-time athletic trainer in the history of the league, their time thus not overlapping. Ruef remains with the organization, and recently offered a presentation at UW-Eau Claire reflecting on her experiences in the game and how it has evolved since she has been there.
She noted that when she was originally brought in, she felt a sense of doubt from some of her male colleagues regarding her abilities, but that it quickly subsided as she went about her work and demonstrated her competence.
From 2011 to 2014, she remained the only female athletic trainer employed on a full-time basis, which is an oddity given that, as she notes, women regularly work in the profession at lower levels of the sport, so it’s not as though their presence is an oddity.
She noted a key turning point in 2014 during a meeting of head athletic trainers with Commissioner Roger Goodell. She pointed out that the majority of trainers who are brought in for full-time work come from the ranks of interns, among which women are underrepresented.
Following that meeting, the league opened up an additional 32 scholarships for women to enter internships, and since then, five more women have been hired as full-time trainers in the NFL. Considering that for 13 years, there had only been one, that is a significant increase.
Women have also gotten their foot in the door in other facets of the sport as well, such as Katie Sowers, and Kathryn Smith before her, the first women to be employed as full-time coaches. Smith was a special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2016 but was not retained during a regime change. Sowers was hired as an offensive assistant, and remains with the organization.
Sarah Thomas is the first permanent female official in the NFL as well, first hired in 2015 and remaining in the employment of the league. He was previously a line judge and now serves as a down judge.
I would like to give a special mention to a friend of mine, Jessica Larmony, who is currently serving as the scouting operations manager for the Detroit Lions. She was previously at Western Michigan as director of football operations (just one of three women in that role nationwide), where she worked with Keion Adams.