2020: Closing the gender gap in sports


Noah Shubert, News Co-Editor

Last month, Vanderbilt women’s soccer goalie Sarah Fuller made history as the first woman to play in a Power-5 conference football game when she suited up against Missouri as the team’s starting kicker. Fuller only saw the field of play once, however, as the visiting Commodores were blanked by the Tigers 41-0. 


She sent the second half kickoff 50 yards where it was recovered by Missouri. Critics came after Fuller for the kick, citing that it traveled a great deal shorter than a usual kickoff. Head coach Todd Fitch shut them down, however, and explained to reporters that it was an intentional pooch kick (a kickoff meant to be shorter), and praised Fuller for executing the play how it was designed. 


In a postgame interview with ESPN, Fuller said that she wanted to prove to “all the girls out there that you can do anything you set your mind to,” and assured that with the right mentality, “[girls] can do big things.” 


Continuing in her history-making ways, Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score a point in the same context, when she kicked the extra point following one of Vanderbilt’s touchdowns against Tennessee.


Fuller is the most recent addition to a list of firsts for women in professional sports this year, as 2020 saw six women break the perceived gender barrier.


Earlier this year, the world saw the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl. Katie Sowers began her football career as a player, suiting up for the West Michigan Mayhem and Kansas City Mayhem of the Women’s Football Alliance. She was a member of the United States women’s American football national team and won the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) championship in 2013. Sowers began her career as a wide receivers intern coach with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, becoming the first openly-LGBTQ+ coach in NFL history. She then moved on to the San Francisco 49ers where she became an offensive assistant, and helped coach the team all the way to Super Bowl LIV in Miami. The 49ers fell to the Kansas City Chiefs 31-20 in the game, but Sowers acted as a beacon of hope for women across the country.


During the current NFL season, Cleveland Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson was promoted to tight ends coach for their Week 12 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, becoming the first woman to serve as a position coach. Like Sowers, Brownson had experience in the Women’s Football Alliance, winning two championships with the DC Divas. This was not the first time Brownson made history either, as she became the first woman to be a coach in Division 1 football history when she was hired by Dartmouth in 2018. She was able to witness the fruition of her accomplishments in the Browns’ game, as tight end Austin Hooper caught a touchdown pass in the 27-25 win, improving the team’s record on the season to 8-3. 


Major League Baseball also had two women break the barrier, as Alyssa Nakken and Kim Ng took on roles on and off the field.


Alyssa Nakken made her name this year as the first woman to coach for an MLB team. The San Francisco Giants initially hired her in 2014, working in the baseball operations office until this year. She was then promoted to the position of assistant coach in 2020, and had her first on-field experience in an exhibition game against the Oakland Athletics, where she held the position of first base coach in the Giants’ 6-2 win. Her jersey from the game currently resides in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.


Kim Ng populated headlines in November as she became the first woman to be general manager of a team within the four major US sports leagues (MLB, NHL, NFL, NBA) when she was hired by the Miami Marlins. Ng has been involved in baseball for almost 30 years, having served in the front office of the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations, and the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office as well. Ng won three World Series rings with the Yankees from 1998-2000 as their assistant general manager, one of only four women to hold the title in league history. Following the end of her tenure with the Dodgers, Ng accepted the position of senior vice president of baseball operations of the league as a whole, having already interviewed for the vacant general manager roles in the Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants respective organizations. Not only is Ng the first woman, but also the first Asian-American GM in MLB history.


In the NBA, Becky Hammon became the first woman to head coach a game this summer when she took the helm for the San Antonio Spurs’ exhibition game against the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Bubble. Like Katie Sowers and Callie Brownson, Hammon has her own history of playing professionally. During her 16-season WNBA career, she was a six-time All Star, two-time All-First team and All-Second team and led the league in assists in 2007. After tearing her ACL in 2013 while playing for the San Antonio Stars, she was hired by the Spurs organization as an assistant coach, the second in NBA history and the first full-time assistant coach in the four major sports. Hammon became the head coach for the Spurs’ summer league team in 2015, for which she is also the first woman to do so, leading them to the championship that same year.


2020 has truly been a historic year for women in sports. Whether it be coaching in an NBA game or playing college football, more and more accomplishments are being crossed off the list for what women have yet to do. It has definitely taken too long to reach this point, but the path has been laid by trailblazers for women to be successful. While there is still a ways to go before complete equity is reached in terms of hiring in the sports industry, this year has been a big step in the right direction towards that perfect world where people who demonstrate the same skill level are considered equally, regardless of gender.