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Mar 26, 2014

AP Photo by Lenny Ignelzi

A Study in Pink: First female referee makes NFL history

It’s been a summer of historic firsts in the sporting world. The real test will be if the NFL will hire more than one female official.
AP Photo by Lenny Ignelzi

There have been a lot of firsts at the London Olympics: the first African-American gymnast to win the women’s all-around, the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia, the first Muslim woman to referee beach volleyball. The Olympics is a place of acceptance.

Let’s see if that grand bastion of the good ol’ boys, i.e. American football, can follow the pattern.

On August 9th, Shannon Eastin made history as the first woman to referee an NFL game. She served as a line judge in a pre-season match between the San Diego Chargers and the Green Bay Packers. The referees’ union is engaged in a labor dispute and a lockout, so when the NFL sought replacement officials, Eastin got her chance to step up.

Before she even took the field, Eastin had her share of hurdles to overcome. Some believed she was taking advantage of the union’s struggle and breaking solidarity with her fellow coaches by taking the position. And some believed NCAA Division I referee Sarah Thomas, banned from service by the lockout, was a more deserving candidate to pioneer women’s role in the NFL.

Not to mention the obligatory outcry that football is a man’s game, the last place where men can be free of the evil emasculating influence of women. In “Sound-Off,” an opinion outlet by AL.com (yes, Alabama—were you surprised?), one reader compared female referees to immigrants “taking our jobs.”

Then again, in that same edition of “Sound-Off,” a fan claimed that Joe Paterno of Penn State is the god of football and his critics are all just being self-righteous. When someone worships good ol’ football so much that they gloss over child molestation in order to salvage an old coach’s reputation, I think it’s okay to ignore their opinion.

Really, this isn’t an issue of whether women can make good calls on the field. According to ABC News, Eastin has been a referee for 17 seasons, four at the college level in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference. She threw five flags in her first NFL game, including a significant fourth-quarter call that was upheld in replays, and intervened to quell a post-play confrontation between four players. And Thomas, a Division I referee since 2007, has worked two bowl games and the 2010 United Football League Championship game. Skill and experience are not a concern.

The real issue is whether we default to women or men when we think of positions of authority. Even in jobs traditionally identified as “women’s work,” men often claim the lion’s share of leadership positions. Women are expected to cook, but most executive chefs are male. Women can teach in elementary schools but struggle to claim positions as professors.

When sports are divided by gender, the disparity becomes even more obvious. A man may (and often does, especially at the Olympic level) coach a gymnastics team, but I’ve never heard of a female baseball coach. The coaching and officiating “gender line” between sports is a one-way street; men can cross, but women can’t.

The NFL should take some cues from the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball. Yahoo! News reported that FIVB President Jizhong Wei has instated a rule that officials are assigned to both women’s and men’s games with no regard for gender. Wei set a goal that 30 percent of volleyball referees at the London Olympics would be female, and four of the 16 were. To close that gap, Wei funded national programs to give women referees the necessary experience to qualify to officiate at higher levels.

Even in volleyball, a sport where women’s play is often praised over men’s (hopefully not just because they’re in hot bikinis), men still claim the majority of referee positions at the Olympics. But Wei works to increase women’s participation at upper levels and creates rules that guarantee that the women who do qualify will referee both women’s and men’s games.

Eastin’s accomplishment is a great first step for the NFL. But I’ll agree that Thomas would also have been an admirable trailblazer for women referees—in fact, with her NCAA credentials, she already is. So once this labor dispute is resolved, how about we dare to dream the impossible: two female referees in the NFL.