As a 5-foot-8 senior guard for Goshen College’s basketball team in Goshen, Indiana, Katie Sowers played with grit, averaging 28 minutes, eight points and five rebounds per game. But she wasn’t pounding the court for the love of the game — at least not true love.
Her true love was football. She and twin sister, Liz, used to finish Sunday dinners in Kansas, then sit down and make a list of all the boys in the neighborhood they wanted to invite, then call and ask them to come play.
“All our friends were playing football and we saw ourselves as equals, as we should,” Katie Sowers, 33, told NBC Sports Bay Area in November.
But outside of the neighborhood, football wasn’t a place for girls. Sowers landed a scholarship to play basketball at Goshen, a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Mennonite church located 160 miles north of Indianapolis.
When her playing eligibility ran out, Sowers — who had been a team captain — asked to stay on as a volunteer basketball coach for the women’s team.
“My coach called me in and said they have a lot of parents that have been worried about their daughter being around someone who is gay,” Sowers said in an NBC Sports video. “That’s not something they would want around the team.”
The coach hugged her and told her, “It’s nothing personal,” Sowers recalled.
“And I remember hugging him but being extremely upset,” she said. “It was something that I grieved about for awhile, but I decided I had to move on.”
The rejection at Goshen paved the way for an entirely different path. Sowers took up football, playing in the Women’s Football Alliance, then landed a job with the Atlanta Falcons.
This Sunday, in her third season with the 49ers, Sowers will take the field as an offensive assistant and the first female and openly gay person to coach in the Super Bowl. Ironically, she credits Goshen with getting her there.
“That experience (at Goshen) actually led me to football,” she said. “And led me to a second chance at the game that I originally loved the most.”
‘Goshen should have been brave’
Goshen president Rebecca Stoltzfus last week issued an apology for the way Sowers was treated, while pointing out that the college’s policy 10 years ago allowed for such discrimination.
“Sadly, in 2009, our policies and the laws of Indiana allowed for hiring decisions to consider sexual orientation,” the statement read. “I am glad that Goshen College adopted a new non-discrimination policy in 2015, and I am thankful for the leaders before me who brought this change about, not the least of whom were our students and alumni.”
Stoltzfus did not respond on Tuesday to a call and e-mail from IndyStar.
Critics said policy shouldn’t have mattered.
“Goshen should have been brave,” said A.M. Savage, a professor of communication and media studies at Butler University who specializes in gender, women and sexuality studies. “They shouldn’t discriminate against anyone based on an identity category.”
Long after Sowers was gone, Goshen praised her in alumni news. On the college’s website, there are links to three stories — August 2016: Atlanta Falcons’ Dan Quinn praises coaching intern Katie Sowers; August 2017: Goshen, Hesston alum becomes second female NFL coach; and most recently Jan. 22, before the apology was issued: Alumna Katie Sowers ’09 will make coaching history at the Super Bowl.
“We are very proud of all that… Sowers has achieved in her life and the ways that she leads on and off the football field with authenticity, grace and excellence,” Stoltzfus said in the statement. “She has publicly shared her journey to coaching, including the barriers she faced related to her sexual orientation when seeking a volunteer coaching position at Goshen College.”
Sowers’ response to the apology was given to NBC Sports: “I loved my time at Goshen and I love everything Goshen College represents. This moment was tough, but the reality is we all experience rejection and adversity in our lives,” she said.
It still could happen elsewhere
What happened to Sowers could still happen, depending on the place and jurisdiction, said Steve Sanders, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.
“Many people are surprised that the legal protections from anti-gay and lesbian discrimination remain so spotty,” said Sanders, who teaches constitutional law and specializes in gender studies. “If you’re gay or lesbian, you can get married one day and, at least in some jurisdictions, be fired from your job the next day.”
That was the case in 2009 and remains the case today. There is no state law in Indiana that prohibits employment, housing, public accommodations or other forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Sanders said. While 22 states have such laws, Indiana is not one of them.
Most of the state’s major cities and counties, however, do have ordinances that prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination in areas such as employment, housing and public accommodations.
Goshen included a specific apology to Sowers in its statement.
“While we cannot go back and change history, justice calls us to stand up now and say that the way Goshen College treated Katie’s offer to coach was hurtful and wrong,” said Stoltzfus. “I express on behalf of the institution our profound apologies to Katie Sowers and to all others who have not been welcomed here, simply because of who they are.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via e-mail: [email protected]