On Sunday, Sept. 27, the regular-season game between the Washington Football Team and the Cleveland Browns at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio made NFL history: It was the first time that three female coaches or officials were present on the field at the same time. This historic trio consisted of Washington Offensive Assistant Jennifer King, Browns Chief of Staff Callie Brownson and NFL game official Sarah Thomas.
Both teams issued official statements on Twitter to celebrate this moment. “Making history. Today’s game marks the first regular-season game in [NFL] history to have a female coach on both sidelines [and] a female official,” tweeted the Cleveland Browns. The Washington Football Team retweeted the comment and remarked, “We’re more than proud of [Jennifer King] and all the women who are breaking barriers in our league!!” Other players, fans and members of the NFL expressed their support. The head coach of the Washington Football Team, Ron Rivera, said in a press conference following the game, “I think it is about time that there is some gender equity in this sport . . . All we are doing is just creating opportunities for people that deserve it.”
It wasn’t the first time making NFL history for any of these three women. King was a seven-time All-American quarterback and receiver for the Carolina Phoenix women’s tackle football team for 11 years. While still playing professional football in 2018, she approached Rivera, then head coach for the Carolina Panthers. Rivera was impressed by King’s knowledge and hired her as a wide receivers coach for the team, becoming the first Black, female assistant coach in the history of the NFL. In 2020, King made the move with Rivera to the Washington Football Team, following his departure from Carolina, and started as a full-year coaching intern there.
Like King, Brownson found success on the football field from an early age. At the age of 19, Brownson joined the D.C. Divas in the Women’s Football Alliance, playing free safety and running back. From 2010 to 2017, she helped the team win two national championships. While still playing for the Divas, Brownson started her coaching career, originally coaching high school before transitioning to college. Brownson interned at Dartmouth College as a quality control coach for two weeks in 2018, and then was promoted to offensive quality coach, becoming the first female full-time NCAA Division I coach.
Thomas first began her officiating career in 1996 and has been breaking down barriers ever since. In a 2007 match between the University of Memphis and Jacksonville State University, she became the first woman to officiate a college bowl game. In 2011, Thomas became the first woman to officiate at a Big Ten stadium, as a line judge, when Northwestern University faced Rice University. Six years later, she was hired as the first permanent female official in the NFL. Thomas then became the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game in 2019.
All in all, this Week 3 game marked a milestone for gender equality in American football, a typically male-dominated sport. During a phone interview with WTOP Sports, King said she appreciates becoming “part of football history.” Still, she said, “the moment will come and go, and it’s ultimately about the game.”