There Is a Flag On the Play! Why Aren’t There More Women Officials in Sports?

When I was younger (read: 18 years old GOD HOW LONG AGO IT WAS), I had a conversation with my father about the sorts of things I’d like to do when done with school. I had just started college, declared a major of English Language & Literature, and felt a bit worried that I would never find something to do with my future degree. While my dad and I spoke, a baseball game continued on the television in the background. I caught it out of the corner of my eye and said to my dad (a bit half-assed, I must admit) “You know what, Dad? I’ll just become an umpire. There. I’ve figured it out!” He laughed, wished me good luck, and said “I’m not sure how well that would be received by a lot of the people who watch the games, Caitlin.”

I brushed it off at the time, but it became very clear to me that my dad was not off base in his thinking at all. I asked a few friends for their opinion about my “dream” of becoming an umpire, and most responses were along the lines of, “Yeah, that’d probably be weird to see a girl calling the shots,” or, “I’m not sure girls would know much about the game. Not as much as a guy would, at least.”


My hopes of becoming a baseball umpire quickly died after these exchanges ““ I felt disheartened and frustrated by the negativity of those around me and chose to remember that I was paying for a degree in reading, not refereeing ““ but many women have not given up on their officiating dreams as quickly as I did. In athletics all around the world, women are working their hardest to become officials at top levels. One woman, Sarah Thomas, is slowly but surely carving her niche into the sporting world, competing for a spot as a referee in one of professional sports’ most popular and competitive leagues ““ the National Football League.

Since beginning her career in 1996, Thomas has worked at various levels of the sport, refereeing in both high school and college games, and, most recently, acting as a permanent official in the United Football League. Thomas is also known for being the first female official to referee a bowl game when she was assigned to work at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl during the 2009 collegiate season. Gerry Austin, Conference USA’s coordinator of officials and a former NFL official, has spoken highly of Thomas’ work on the field. “She came highly recommended by two NFL scouts,” he said. “She has a good presence and demeanor. I feel she has the ability and courage to make a call, and the guts to not make one, too.” NFL referee Gene Stretatore echoes Austin’s statements, saying, “I know that she’s very qualified and very good at what she does.” This sort of praise seems to be echoed from almost everyone who crosses Thomas’ path, illustrating the fact that Thomas is a legitimate force within the game of football.

Most recently, Thomas has gained extreme interest from the NFL as a possible candidate to be its first female official. Her impressive work within the sport has garnered buzz from athletes, coaches, and officials alike ““ many see her as a shoe-in for the position. Unfortunately, this exciting news for Thomas comes with the usual backlash normally attached to any mention of a woman in sports; namely, those individuals who would like to write her (and her legitimacy as a sports official) off because she is a woman. Thomas states that she has heard various complaints since she started refereeing more than a decade ago; specifically, that she “throws the flag like a girl” and that she needs to “get my panties off my head.” Thomas laughs off these comments with a simple statement: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one.”

There is currently only one female official in all major professional sports: Violet Palmer, a referee in the National Basketball Association (NBA), officiated her first NBA game in 1997 (with another female referee, Dee Kantner ““ double awesome!) and also acts as coordinator of women’s basketball officials for the West Coast Conference. If Thomas were to be asked to join the National Football League as its first female official, it would be an incredible step for women in sports, simply in terms of female representation. However, some questions have been raised about what sort of abuse Thomas might face if she were to take the field in a professional football game. MJD of Shutdown Corner at Yahoo! Sports, who is an avid supporter of Thomas, says, “One day, it will happen. Maybe it’ll be Sarah Thomas, and maybe it won’t. But whoever it is, and whenever it happens, I hope they’re not waiting for the NFL fans of the world to adopt a progressive feminist attitude first.” While that statement may be true, one remains hopeful that both Palmer and Thomas’ (expected) presence in professional sports will lead the way for other women who hope to either play or officiate at a professional level someday.

Sarah Thomas is, by all accounts, someone to be admired. Her work as a football official has been lauded by those who have seen her on the field. Amidst this praise, she has displayed the utmost level of humility about herself and an incredible respect for the game. When asked for her opinion on how she would proceed if asked to work within the NFL, she says, “I would be lying if I sat here and said if the NFL called me and offered me a job”¦I wouldn’t turn them down. I can’t change the fact that I’m a female. I’m just here to officiate the game, go unnoticed as much as I can. As far as wearing those stripes, it’s a huge honor and I take pride in it every time I’m given the opportunity to put it on.” It is safe to say that Sarah Thomas has been noticed and that many are excited to see what the next step is in her career.

By Caitlin

25 years old. Proud Michigander. Lover of Scandinavia, feminism, the Detroit Tigers, and perusing unaffordable real estate.

Du har. Du vil. Du burde.

2 replies on “There Is a Flag On the Play! Why Aren’t There More Women Officials in Sports?”

It’s an instance of absolutely perfect sexism, in that there’s no reasonable non-sexist excuse for not having women as officials.

Some male NBA fans bray about WNBA being boring because of its focus on fundamentals, etc., and while I do not necessarily agree that WNBA has to be about fundamentals (just lower the damn goal and encourage slam-dunks and other individual-star type plays if they’re really so important to the game), it’s a valid complaint about a difference between the women’s and men’s versions in their current states,

But the whole women officials thing — pure, straight-up, traditional misogyny. I almost love it, as in hate it passionately, in that it’s so simple to present logic-based arguments against keeping women out, yet the sexism persists because I guess the idea of a woman official gives some men ooky feelings. Yes! Feelings. Sports is basically giant beefy chess pieces mashing themselves against each other gruntily, yet suddenly in this respect we’re concerned about the emotional nuances players might experience when an official has non-penisular reproductive equipment. I bet most players wouldn’t even notice a female official, seeing as how players have more important things to think about during a game. So we’re left with the ooky feelings of audiences, and I just don’t buy the argument that people would stop watching football if women were officiating. I would not want to be in the shoes of those women officials, because they would be the subject of constant vile shit from the fans until the boys settled down and got used to the idea, but it’s not like football fans are the kind of people that would stop watching on principle. There’s the team to support! Fantasy leagues to manage! Nachos to consume on game day! It’s just too much of a tradition for fan dropoff to be a big concern. So why aren’t they moving forward with women officials? Pure, unadulterated, unabashed sexism.

Sarah Thomas, you rock! I hope to see you officiate an NFL game some day. I will call all my NFL-watching ladyfriends into the room (yes! we exist! and we’re not just in the background rolling our eyes and making sandwiches for the dudes!) and fist-pump every call you make. Even the obviously stupid unfair ones that go against my team.

It would be fascinating to see the rhetoric of people discussing calls if women were among the people calling the plays. In sporting events (esp football and basketball, the two I watch most) bad calls, “over officiating,” biased calls, etc. are everyone’s favorite things to complain about. I’m willing to bet serious money that if women were out there making calls, the insults would immediately be cast in gender terms. Could be fascinating. Aaaaand depressing.

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