Rise of the RefHERee

Is the NFL and its fans ready for a female referee? The 2014 season  will come soon enough.
Is the NFL and its fans ready for a female referee? The 2014 season will come soon enough.

By Mateeka Lanee

These days, women seem to be intruding on every male-dominated sphere of the universe, to the dismay of some. They have roles as politicians, movie directors, and now, even football officials.

National Football League representatives recently announced that 39-year-old Sarah Thomas is “on the radar” to become the league’s first full-time female official. With 16 years of experience including working as an official with Conference USA and training in this year’s officiating development program with the Indianapolis Colts, Thomas now is eligible for a spot on the big field as early as the 2014 season.

Landing on the league radar has taken years of training and knowledge gained from officiating games at the grade school, middle school, high school, and, finally, college level. It’s an accomplishment that has taken strength, nerve, and an open-mindedness to learning new strategies and adapt to the challenges of games at different levels. Yet, Thomas’ recent interviews with NFL.com and CBS Sports among other media outlets show that she’s taking this promotion for exactly what it is. It’s easy to get carried away in the hoopla and inevitable pressure that being a “first” brings, but Thomas remains cool and collected, contending that she is most excited to get out and enjoy being a frontline participant in the adrenaline rush that marks the start of football season.

But what exactly does it mean for the NFL to take on its first female official? It’s important to point out that Thomas will be the league’s first “full-time” official when she is officially hired on. Last year, Shannon Eastin broke barriers by officiating in both pre-season and regular-season games during the officials lockout. Perhaps as a matter of course, she was laid off once an agreement was reached between the disgruntled NFL Referees Association and the NFL. Thomas will be considered the “true first” by many, as her contract will be more than merely a begrudged stint on the field.

It’s safe to say that referees may just be the most disliked people at almost any sporting event, and sometimes not the safest. This past May, a soccer official in Utah named Ricardo Portillo died from swelling in his brain a week after being punched in the head by an angry high school player. Considering that American football players have even more stereotypes of being pigheaded steroid-drones than their futbol playing cousins, this could prove a challenge to any official.

And it’s not just physical wounds that plague many officials in professional games. Verbal harassment is common from not only players, but also coaches, and even overzealous fans. That type of treatment may be somewhat commonplace, but will there be a difference when a 200-pound linebacker shoves his finger in the face of a woman half his size? Some may question what the repercussions could or perhaps should be for such behavior. Do the same rules apply? As of yet, there really are no rules. If Pacman Jones decides to step to Thomas’ face and angrily dispute a call, how will Thomas react? More important, what will be the public’s reaction to his dispute?

Much of the talk surrounding the announcement of a female NFL referee has to do with the idea that Thomas is breaking down the glass ceiling, which has for so long invisibly prevented minorities from obtaining certain positions of authority. Thomas, in an interview with CBS, said “I know a lot of females are maybe inspired that there’s a gender-barrier about to be broken. But I never set out to shatter the glass ceiling.”

Her goal has always been to enjoy the game of football through participation. Still, it can’t be denied that the role she’s about to play in sports history is nearly as exciting for women’s rights as Hillary Clinton’s running was in the 2008 presidential primary elections. Well, at least for football fans. Many look forward to 2014 as a season of change not ushered in by President Barack Obama. Some, however, believe the waters must be treaded very carefully looking into the future.

Just reading through the forbidden comments sections of many articles on the subject puts a dark cloud over the  situation. Anonymous American misogynists seem to have reached a general consensus: women are trying to ruin football by making it a pansy game, where men can’t release the necessary amounts of testosterone to make it through all four quarters. It’s safe to assume that the mere presence of a woman on the field won’t cause mayhem – at least it hasn’t in Thomas’ career thus far.

Still, what arguments will arise when she makes her first “bad” call? Will fans, lounging on their couches, throw half-full bottles of Heineken up into the air, screaming that she shouldn’t have been allowed on the field in the first place? What’s worse, will women’s rights groups look to Thomas as a sort of sacrificial lamb, to be used as a mascot and then thrown viciously to the Chicago Bears? (There are no wolves in the NFL, turns out).

What may be most interesting will be to see to what standards of excellence Thomas will be held. The NFL clearly believes  she is more than up to par. They’ve already chosen her, the same way Illuminati chooses its members (well, we’re not sure how that actually plays out, but it takes years and secrecy and extensive preparation as well). It’s the coaches, players, and fans who will, somewhat unfortunately, make the ultimate decision on her value to the NFL.

Public opinion holds almost more weight than official scores in many cases. Public opinion, along with some pretty massive errors in judgment, killed Chad Ochocinco’s career. Public opinion, and Jesus Christ, made Tim Tebow a superstar. What will it do for Sarah Thomas? By the time football season rolls around again next year, will this discussion even still be relevant?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, Sarah Thomas is focusing on doing her job, excited to be the one calling the shots.