Breaking Barriers

April 23, 2018

In years' past, athletic training for football was largely considered a man’s world, but Sonia Ruef, MA, ATC, Assistant Athletic Trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is on a mission to change that assumption and close the gender barrier. How is she doing this? Ruef is making a difference through sharing her story and taking a stand for what she believes in.

According to an article for the Leader-Telegram, Ruef became the second full-time female athletic trainer in the history of the NFL seven years ago, with former Steelers athletic trainer Arika Iso, ATC, being the first. The day after International Women’s Day this March, Ruef gave a presentation to both male and female University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire athletic training students, where she explained that this number has grown to six, and she doesn’t see it stopping anytime soon.

During her presentation, Ruef described the qualities that create a successful athletic trainer, including mental toughness, professionalism, and work ethic. But that’s not all. Ruef also discussed her experiences as a female athletic trainer, as well as the steps she has taken to help change the landscape of the profession.

One of those steps was a 2014 meeting where Ruef and other athletic trainers met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to share their struggles in the field. At the time of this meeting, Ruef was the sole female athletic trainer in the NFL, as Iso had left the league. 

While speaking with Goodell, Ruef not only brought up her lack of female counterparts, she also spoke about the main reason she believed this number was so low—lack of available internships. Ruef explained to the group that most of the athletic trainers who work for the NFL had gone through internships with the organization. The problem was that women weren’t being given these internships and therefore weren’t being prepared for working with the NFL. According to Ruef, sharing her insights at the meeting made a big difference, but for more than just women. Afterwards, the NFL added 32 new scholarships for females, as well as 32 existing scholarships for minority interns.

“It’s been three years since that meeting took place,” said Ruef. “And five female athletic trainers have been hired on full time compared to the 13 years of Ariko and myself being there.”

With the changes in numbers, Ruef has also noticed a difference in the belief that only men could become athletic trainers in the NFL. In the beginning of her career with the league, she felt that some of her male counterparts doubted her abilities. Now, being one of the few females in the industry is not something she notices often.

“I noticed [the uncertainty],” she said in her presentation. “But I just put my head down and went to work.”

Through the presentation at UW-Eau Claire, Ruef inspired the students to make a difference in their own way. Meghan Lange, a senior athletic training student at the school, especially appreciated learning about Ruef’s struggles and successes.

“You get this general perception that women in the NFL, that’s not a thing,” said Lange. “It’s neat to see how she overcame the odds and that anyone can do that in the future."

To read more about Ruef's experiences in the NFL, check out this article she wrote for Training & Conditioning.

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