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Celebrating Black History Month: A Conversation with Collette Smith

During Black History Month, the Women’s Sports Foundation will be highlighting some of the African American female champion athletes, coaches and members of the media who are leading the way for the next generation of black girls and women.

Collette Smith made history in football when she became the first African American female coach in the NFL and the first female coach in the New York Jets’ franchise history. Because football has traditionally excluded women from its playing, coaching and leadership positions, Collette wasn’t able to compete until the age of 42, when she played as a free safety for the New York Sharks, a women’s professional team. When she retired at 45, the Sharks asked her to stay on as a coach.

In honor of Black History Month, WSF caught up with Collette to talk about her career, leveling the playing field for women in coaching and the black women who have inspired her.

WSF: How did you develop an interest in football?

CS: As a spectator, it was a sport to which I gravitated. I always loved football. It was a way for me to get closer with my dad. My father and I were always close, but it was always ‘If dad was watching football, I was watching football.’ As a little girl, my brother didn’t know football as well as I did. I would ask questions, and my father was very open to answering every single question, and I had many.

WSF: Eventually that passion would lead to a career. What inspired you to begin coaching?

CS: For me, it was not being able to play football anymore. To rewind, I never had an opportunity to play football when I was little because I was a girl. I was never allowed to play. So to find football at the age of 42 when I started actually playing football with an organized team for the first time ever, I only had three years of playing time. I was stunted. My playing time was very brief. I didn’t get my fill. I wanted more. When I retired at 45 years old — and that sounds absurd — I still wanted to be around. The owner of my women’s pro football team asked me to coach. I was actually kind of against it. I was like ‘What do you mean, coach? I’ve never coached before.’ And she said ‘Collette, you know the game, you know the plays, you know your position, you’d be a great coach.’ And I realized it was a way for me to be around football again. It was a challenge that I wanted to tackle. I was very nervous about it, but the first day I realized how amazing it was. It was my way of staying with football.

When I think about Black History Month as the first black female coach in the NFL, I know as a black woman, life is not a level playing field. But I’m proud to know that I leveled some of it.

WSF: What was it like to realize that, when you earned the position with the Jets, that you were the first black female coach in the NFL?

CS: Back then, I only was aware that I was the only female coach in the New York Jets’ franchise history. But Billie Jean King is the one who brought to my attention that I was the first African American woman to coach in the NFL. We were at a Title IX 45th Anniversary event, and Billie Jean King sees me and she says ‘Collette, this is so amazing. You’re the first black female coach in the NFL.’ I looked at her like she had four heads. And she repeated it. And I thought about it and I was like ‘You’re right!’ That just opened up my eyes so wide because I thought about all of the black girls that this could help empower. For me, it was the most incredible thing in the world because I want to do something with this platform. I want to use it for good.

WSF: Why is it important to get more women, especially women of color, into football and coaching in general?

CS: Especially for women of color, it’s important because as a black person, we’ve been limited. When my parents and grandparents were growing up, they were told they couldn’t vote or learn to read. Everything was an uphill battle. We had to fight just to be average, fight just to be human. So football to me as a woman, it’s still breaking barriers and letting people know that wee are all equal. To see a woman playing football and a woman of color coaching football, I see it as we are still breaking barriers. It’s unorthodox, we are not supposed to be doing it because football has always been for the boys. Guess what? It isn’t.

WSF: What needs to be done to get more women into coaching male-dominated sports?

CS: There’s a few of us women who have been the first with various teams. More people need to see this. There needs to be a first within each team. We need to celebrate ourselves. Especially as women, we have to shout it from the mountaintops. The more women who see us in these positions or have heard about us, they will do the same. I want them to fight. To fight for what they want to do, whether that’s coaching football or playing football or being a CEO for a Fortune 500 company.

WSF: What does Black History Month and everything it celebrates mean to you?

CS: I look forward to Black History Month every year. To me, I see my mom not being allowed to get on the bus and having to walk to the back of the bus. Today, she doesn’t have to do that. Black History Month makes me proud to see all of the African Americans who have broken barriers, who are mavericks. There are so many African American mavericks in this world, and a lot of them are unknown. I see more when it becomes February. I learn new things. It’s a time to celebrate black people. It just makes me so proud. When I think about Black History Month as the first black female coach in the NFL, I know as a black woman, life is not a level playing field. But I’m proud to know that I leveled some of it.

WSF: Is there a specific black woman from history — either in sport or not — who has inspired or influenced you?

CS: The easy answer would be Oprah Winfrey. She inspires me because who would’ve thought that she was in the position she is in today? She fought for that every step of the way. She didn’t give up on herself. She definitely inspires me.

My other favorite is Serena Williams. My dad is an avid tennis player and I grew up playing tennis. I didn’t want to play tennis, I wanted to play football. I viewed tennis as a sport that I wasn’t really allowed to play because I am black. But Serena Williams came in and not only played with everybody, but she’s the best. Her approach in life, and being a phenomenal mom and wife while killing it on the court, she inspires me with her greatness.

Want more Black History Month content from some of the top women in sports? Check out these other women talking about the celebration (the list will be updated throughout the month):

Elana Meyers Taylor, 3x Olympic medalist, WSF President