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Overcoming the odds: NFL athletic trainer talks about her journey in male-dominated field

Pittsburgh Steelers trainer talks about her journey in male-dominated field

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    Sonia Ruef, assistant athletic trainer with the Pittsburgh Steelers, speaks Friday at UW-Eau Claire about her experiences working with the NFL and how the gender barrier is changing in professional sports. View more photos at

    Staff photo by Dan Reiland
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Working in the National Football League as a female athletic trainer is more common now than it was seven years ago — when Sonia Ruef was only the second full-time woman trainer hired in the organization’s history.

Now she’s one of six, Ruef, assistant athletic trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, told a group of UW-Eau Claire students on Friday in Centennial Hall. 

“I have no doubt that number will continue to grow over the next few years,” Ruef said, gesturing at a PowerPoint behind her that depicted NFL notables such as Ariko Iso, the NFL’s first full-time female athletic trainer. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of other pictures to add to these slides in the future.”

Ruef’s presentation was the day after International Women’s Day. She spent much of her talk discussing how aspiring athletic trainers can become successful — mental toughness, professionalism, work ethic — but she also touched on her journey as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field. Both male and female athletic training students were there to hear what she had to say.

A turning point for women in the NFL, Ruef said, came after a 2014 meeting in which she and a few other athletic training leaders met with commissioner Roger Goodell to talk about issues they were facing in their field. As Iso had moved on to another position outside the NFL before Ruef started full time with the Steelers in 2011, Ruef was the only woman trainer in the NFL at the time.

Ruef told Goodell that the lack of women working full time in the NFL boiled down to internships. Most trainers hired full time had previously interned for the NFL, and women were not receiving the internships needed to prepare them for a future job with the organization.

As a result of that meeting, she said, the NFL added 32 new scholarships for female interns in addition to the 32 existing scholarships for minority interns.

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

That’s a positive trend not only in numbers, she said, but also in attitude.

When it comes to football players themselves, Ruef said most of them are accustomed to working with female athletic trainers because there are generally a lot of them on high school and college teams. Within the NFL, however, she speculated some “old-boys club” thinking is on its way out.

Ruef said she doesn’t generally notice that she’s one of the few women working in the NFL in her day-to-day life on the job. She said when she first started her current position, she noticed a small amount of doubt about her abilities among male co-workers who perhaps weren’t used to women working in the NFL, but that changed quickly. 

“I noticed it,” she said, “but I just put my head down and went to work.”

Meghan Lange, a senior athletic training student at UW-Eau Claire, said she appreciated Ruef’s presentation for its insight.

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

Contact: 715-830-5828,, @LaurenKFrench on Twitter

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