How A Kansas City Woman Is Changing The NFL's Culture From Within
In the best of times for the Kansas City Chiefs and through the worst, the organization has heard women’s voices loud and clear. Since the 1990s, the team has been conscientious about listening to the players’ wives and girlfriends when it comes to family concerns.
“It was amazing … to hear them and their side of it,” said Lamonte Winston, the team’s former executive director of player development until 2009. He first joined the Chiefs as a scout in 1993.
But in recent years, with issues of violence toward women cropping up both with the Chiefs and other teams in the NFL, organizations are slowly taking another approach when it comes to getting women’s input: by hiring them.
Katie Sowers grew up in Hesston, Kansas, lives in Kansas City in the offseason and was deeply involved in the pay-to-play Women’s Football Alliance league for eight years.
“... I also served as an offensive coordinator for while I was also playing quarterback,” she said, adding, “I also served as a general manager for the team.”
So she knows how to run a team, and was eventually hired by the San Francisco 49ers, becoming just the second woman ever to become a year-round NFL assistant.
These days, when Sowers is in the draft room with other 49ers front-office personnel, she’s asking questions about potential players, keeping not just their skills but their off-field actions in mind.
“There could be a top draft pick in terms of combine scores, athletic ability,” she said. “But if his background check doesn’t come through the way that we want it to, we don’t feel like he’s a quality guy, we don’t feel like he’s coachable, he will not be on our team.”
Domestic violence has been a sensitive issue in the Chiefs organization since 2012, when linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, then drove to the parking lot of the Truman Sports Complex and killed himself.
In 2016, the Chiefs drafted Tyreek Hill, a controversial selection due a 2015 domestic violence conviction in which he pleaded guilty to punching Crystal Espinal, who was pregnant with their son. The conviction was expunged after he completed probation in 2018.
John Dorsey, the then-general manager, said the team had “done all our due diligence” when it came to a background check on Hill.
During the most recent offseason, Hill’s name surfaced again in relation to his son being injured. Neither Hill nor Espinal were charged, though the Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said at the time that a crime had been committed and the situation was “deeply troubling.”
On the first night of the 2019 NFL Draft in April, a local television station broadcast snippets of a recorded conversation between Hill and Espinal, leading Chiefs general manager Brett Veach to suspend Hill from all team activities. Yet, Hill will be back on the field this season because the NFL conducted its own investigation and chose not to suspend him from any regular-season games, so the Chiefs reinstated Hill.
Lamonte Winston says Pat Schottenheimer, the wife of former Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer, was instrumental in forwarding the roles of wives and significant others within the Chiefs organization in the 1990s (Marty Schottenheimer coached the Chiefs from 1989 to 1998).
“Everybody called her ‘Big Pat.’ She was the CEO for sure,” Winston said.
Winston later realized the importance of those women becoming enmeshed with team activities.
“They’re not the player’s wife or the player’s girlfriend,” said Winston. “No, no, no. They’re a vital part (of the organization)."
Meanwhile, Sowers said she has seen instances of the 49ers just saying no to certain prospects.
“I won’t say names, but I’ve definitely seen players on our draft boards that you can say you put a black dot on them,” she said.
She’s an example of a woman whose voice is not only listened to, but one of more and more women in and around the NFL who can make or break careers.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.