“This is a man’s world,” James Brown once sang, and at the time, he could have been talking about sports. When the Godfather of Soul recorded that song in 1966, professional team sports were almost exclusively male, there were few opportunities for females at the collegiate level, and women were still forbidden to run the Boston Marathon.
Well, times have changed. Title IX leveled the field for women’s college sports, Billie Jean King spanked Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, and the successful launch of the WNBA proved that ladies can ball, too. But though many female athletes have competed at the same level as males for years, it’s still rare to see women holding positions of authority (like coach, referee or agent) in men’s sports. Think about it: When’s the last time you saw a lady flag your team for holding?
If you answered “never,” get ready to change your response. Women are breaking into roles in professional sports that have long been held predominantly by men. Here are six women working on or near the field of your favorite sports and proving that it ain’t just a man’s world anymore.
The Referees: Violet Palmer (NBA) and Sarah Thomas (NFL)
Violet Palmer talks with Blake Griffin during a Clippers game. Photo: AP Images
Violet Palmer became the first woman to work as a referee in any major U.S. professional sport when she started with the NBA in 1997, but she took it even further in 2006 when she suited up as the first female to officiate a playoff game. She broke even more ground when she officiated the league’s All-Star game this year.
Sarah Thomas chats with Cleveland Browns equipment manager Brad Melland. Photo: AP Images
Sarah Thomas blazed a new trail for female refs in the male-dominant sport of football. Thomas was the first woman to officiate a college football bowl game (the 2009 Little Caesar Pizza Bowl) and a game in a Big Ten stadium (at Northwestern during a 2011 game against Rice University.) She is currently a candidate to become the first permanent female ref in the NFL. Many hail her as a pioneer, but Thomas sees herself as just another referee doing her job. She adds that she’s never felt any resistance from co-workers because of her gender.
The Trainer: Nicole Rodriguez
Nicole Rodriguez training Chris Snyder and Eric Young Jr. Photo: Facebook, TeamEXOS
When you think of a strength trainer pushing muscled-up athletes through grueling workouts, you probably envision a 300-pound meathead with tattoos and a loud voice. You would not picture Rodriguez, a performance specialist at EXOS. Each winter and spring, you can find her whipping NFL draft prospects into shape. Before EXOS, Rodriguez trained athletes at another high profile gym, Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning, where she served as Sports Performance Director.
The High-Profile Agent: Lucia McKelvey
Lucia McKelvey with pro boxer Manny Pacquiao. Photo: Twitter luciaboxing
A former IMG vice president in the golf department, Lucia McKelvey has been a standout sports agent since 2008. But she stepped into a new realm in 2011, when she switched to Top Rank Boxing and began managing Manny Pacquiao. Friends and colleagues reacted with surprise, but McKelvey calls boxing “the jungle,” and she sees it as a new challenge that squares well with her personality.
The Coaches: Beth Alford-Sullivan and Carrie Keil
Beth Alford-Sullivan training the Penn State men’s track team. Photo: UTSports
You’re used to seeing female coaches lead women’s teams. It’s far less common for a woman to coach a men’s team, but Beth Alford-Sullivan does it at Penn State University, where she coaches both the men’s and women’s track & field teams for the Nittany Lions. This past season was her 8th in charge of the men and 15th in charge of the women. She’s the first female to coach a men’s team in the Big Ten. And she’s done a stellar job with both squads. Alford-Sullivan helped mold 106 NCAA All-American female runners and another 32 All-American honorees from the men’s squad. She was named women’s Big Ten indoor coach of the year in 2014. This summer, Alford-Sullivan left Penn State to be the director of track & field and cross-country for the University of Tennessee.
Photo: Hockey Masters
Like Alford-Sullivan, Carrie Keil also works with both male and female athletes as the skating coach for the USA Hockey National Team. She’s entering her 14th season as skating coach for the Under-17 and Under-18 men’s and women’s USA Hockey teams. Keil has coached for 25 years—a span that includes a stint coaching skating for the University of Michigan’s men’s team.