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How women are gaining yardage in men’s pro sports

Indoor Football League 2014: Cedar Rapids Titans vs Texas Revolution FEB 21Indoor Football League 2014: Cedar Rapids Titans vs Texas Revolution FEB 21
Texas Revolution running back Jennifer Welter (47) during an Indoor Football League game at the Allen Event Center Friday, February 21, 2014, in Allen, Texas. Photograph by Michael Prengler — AP

They say good things comes in threes. For fans of gender diversity in pro sports, today’s news that the Arizona Cardinals have hired the first female NFL coach completes the cycle.

It’s been a year of firsts for the NFL and NBA. In April, the NFL appointed its first female ref, Sarah Thomas. In July, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the first female head coach of the Summer League, after hiring her a year earlier as the first female NBA assistant coach. And now the Cardinals have brought on Jen Welter as a coaching intern for training camp and the preseason. Don’t be surprised, either, if the team keeps her on for the regular season.

“I thought she was the type of person that could handle this in a very positive way for women and open that door,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians in a story on the Cardinals web site. According to the story, Arians heard from the Texas Revolution, a team in the Indoor Football League, that there was a female on its coaching staff who was “worth a look.” He brought her in on Monday and shortly thereafter, the team announced her hire as a defensive coaching intern working with inside linebackers.

Dr. Welter—who holds a PhD in psychology—is a former college rugby player who made the Revolution roster as a running back in January 2014, becoming the first female to play in a professional football league at a position other than kicker. Now she has moved up to the sport’s biggest stage.

Welter shares her long background in football with Thomas, and with Hammon in basketball.

Thomas, who works in pharmaceuticals (refereeing is not a full-time job, even in the NFL), began officiating games for Conference USA back in 2007, and that year became the first woman to officiate a DI college football game (Memphis vs. Jacksonville State). Since then, she officiated the Little Caesars Bowl in 2009 and officiated NFL training camp scrimmage games. She will start this coming NFL season. Hammon, before getting to the NBA, was a WNBA player and played college basketball at Colorado State University. She is the only one of these three women to have already worked during a normal season, having just completed her first season as an NBA assistant coach in May. In July, her Spurs won the Summer League.

While Welter, Hammon and Thomas are all in-game employees of a sort, the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) last year named Michele Roberts its executive director, making her the first woman to head up the players union of a major sports league. She has already earned praise for fighting to represent the interests of NBA players.

The NFL still has major work to do if it aims to clean up its image among female fans and among women in general. Last season was marred by a far-reaching domestic abuse scandal, and in July the league reduced its suspension for Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, convicted in 2014 of assaulting a woman, from 10 games down to four. It was a controversial decision.

Skeptics could dismiss the progress signaled by Welter and Thomas by pointing to their minor roles. Welter is, for now, merely an intern, and has only been brought on for training camp and preseason. Thomas will be a line judge, which is not quite as important as a referee, umpire, or head linesman.

But a female ref and a female coach, no matter the specifics of their roles, are a strong start for gender diversity in these male leagues. (“For a league that is a 3D projection of the Male Id, this is pretty big,” wrote Vice Sports about Welter’s hire.) As Hammon told Fortune this month, “Now that this door has been opened, maybe we’ll see more of it, and hopefully it will not be a news story.” For now, it is quite a story. In a time when the NFL needs all the positive press it can get, it has garnered good headlines from the hirings of Thomas and Welter and will continue to do so.

The Cardinals received so many requests for interviews with Welter that the team held a press conference today at its training facility to introduce her and answer questions. Welter said she had spent the last 24 hours, “getting wrapped up in the wings of the Cardinals. they’ve taken me into the fold and said, ‘We are so glad to have you. Let’s learn. How can we make you feel more comfortable?’ That’s been from everyone here I’ve been in contact with.” A reporter asked Welter her biggest concern or challenge. “The size of an NFL playbook,” she said.

The new coaching intern also revealed she still possesses the first paycheck she got for professional football, from playing in the Independent Women’s Football League in 2004. The check was for $12. “I kept it,” she said. “I carry it everywhere with me… It’s actually in my purse upstairs. But I didn’t start playing football to be here. I didn’t even dream that it was possible… Though it’s a dream I never could have had, now it’s a dream other girls can grow up and have.” Arians interrupted Welter to say, “She’s a trailblazer.”

Expect to see continued excitement from the media and fans over Welter’s hire. But will other coaches follow Arian’s lead?

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