Barbara Barker Newsday sports writer Barbara Barker

Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for

If the Buffalo Bills’ newest assistant coach were named Kevin Smith, not Kathryn Smith, the hiring might have merited a single line in a news release last week. Instead it became headline news and ignited a Twitter and sports talk radio debate as people either heralded Rex Ryan as an outside-the-box visionary or labeled him a grandstanding publicity-seeker.

In truth, Rex may be a little bit of both, but that’s fine. Because by elevating a qualified employee who has spent 13 years with the Jets and Bills to a visible sideline position, he has achieved two very important things.

First, he has given my daughter and your daughter and the 45 percent of NFL fans who are women — according to a 2013 NFL commissioned report — something new to aspire to. And second, by hiring the first full-time female assistant NFL coach, he has helped focus public attention on the massive gender-hiring gap in professional sports.

“Here it is a big news story that on one day a year, one team hires one coach, when 364 days a year there’s no woman hired to any coaching position of significance in the league,” said Dave Hollander, who teaches sports management at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. “The last I checked, women were 50 percent of the population. The NFL remains way behind the rest of the American workforce.”

To understand how far behind, one has to understand just how vast and systemic the gender gap is in professional sports, college sports and the sports industry in general.

Richard Lapchick’s Institute for the Diversity of Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida publishes an annual report card on race and gender. In September 2015, Lapchick gave the NFL a C-plus in gender diversity, ranking it behind all other professional sports leagues surveyed except baseball, which was given a C/C-plus.

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Sadly, that mediocre grade puts the NFL ahead of college sports, which was given a C-minus in part because of the troubling fact that while 61.8 percent of Division I women’s teams have a male head coach, only 3.4 percent of their men’s teams are coached by women, the report said.

The grade also put the NFL way ahead of newspapers and websites, which were given an F grade in gender diversity in a 2015 study Lapchick did in conjunction with The Associated Press Sports Editors. The study found that only 13.3 percent of sports staffers were women.

Why does this all matter? College jobs in men’s revenue sports such as basketball and football are higher-paying and are used by many as a stepping-stone to get to the pros. In the media, as fair as reporters try to be, both gender and race can play a role in which sports get covered and from what perspective they are covered.

The good news, of course, is that the climate could be changing, as there have been a number of notable hires of women in sports during the past 18 months.

Becky Hammon was hired to coach the Spurs and then Nancy Lieberman was hired to coach the Sacramento Kings. Sarah Thomas was hired as an NFL official and Jen Welter paved the way for Smith when she was hired this past summer as a coaching intern with the Arizona Cardinals.

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In the media, Jessica Mendoza recently was named a full-time member of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast team for 2016.

“I don’t know if I would call this a trend. I think it’s that a lot of the guys have been around us enough that they can see value in what we offer,” Lieberman told Newsday. “Rex was around Kathryn for many years, saw what she could do and wanted her to do it for his team.”

I would add to that that it’s been 43 years since the passage of Title IX, meaning many of the people who make hiring decisions grew up with women who played sports and have daughters who play sports. Unlike 30 years ago, the majority of players today grew up with mothers who worked and are not uncomfortable with seeing women in a supervisory role.

More and more, people are starting to see that having a talented and diverse staff is good business.

“I do think Kathryn’s hiring is significant, but what will be even more significant is when a woman is hired and it’s no longer a story,” said Amy Trask, an analyst for CBS Sports Network who broke barriers when she served as the CEO of the Oakland Raiders from 1997-2013. “It has always struck me that not only is it wrong to consider race, ethnicity, religion, gender and other characteristics that have no bearing on performance when hiring, it’s also dumb.”

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Lapchick, who has studied race and gender in sports for a generation, is optimistic about the future, saying he would be disappointed if there’s not a woman head coach of a men’s professional team within the next five years.

“We definitely have a long way to go,” Lapchick said, “but this is a barrier-breaking step by the Bills. Personally, I welcome it.”