Female Officials in Sports, Where are They?

Shannon Eastin, Sarah Thomas and Violet Palmer. Sound familiar? Didn’t think so. I can promise that you are not alone, but after reading this you will be more conscious about them. As an avid sports enthusiast myself, the most recent thought of mine resulted in a big question mark. Where are the female officials in sports? What makes people think a male is better at calling a game than a female?

Officiating positions usually call for the person who is “ best at the job” and by best, it implies having extensive knowledge on the sport, the rules, and the ability to stand by a call while not being influenced by the peanut gallery aka players, coaches, fans. Typically, officials are hired from developmental leagues – a minor league among a professional sport that trains coaches, players and officials for the big leagues. The issue here is that it seems the males are the ones advancing the quickest. It is fair to say that in the 21st century, times are changing. Both the NFL’s – Michael Sam and NBA’s – Jason Collins have recently publicly announced themselves as gay, becoming the first to do so in professional sports. This illustrates the newfound diversity in professional sports – yet female officials are still out of the picture. Seems odd, right?

Lets start with Violet Palmer, a female who finds herself in the realm of professional basketball. Palmer set history in 1997 when she was recognized as not only the NBA’s first female official, but also as the first female to officiate a major U.S sport (she also recently came out as gay which added another first to her list). To this day Palmer is still an active official and has officiated playoff, final, and all-star games. Of course, Violet Palmer was the start of a domino effect for future female officials, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Between the NFL, NBA and NHL there have been no further additions of female officials. Is this just by coincidence?

Up next on our list, Shannon Eastin. Eastin was selected to officiate a preseason NFL game during the referee lockout season in 2012. That was also her last to date. It’s funny how she was only selected to officiate because the league was in desperate need of officials due to the strike of their full-timers. Talk about institutional sexism! (When roles are gender structured in favour of men and discriminate against women). Do the professional sports leagues that we follow and love today truly believe that females can’t do the job?

Sarah Thomas is an NFL official in the making as she is in her final stage of the NFL’s developmental program and once this stage is completed she will be eligible to officiate regular season NFL games. She currently has experience with officiating preseason games but the question is, when she becomes eligible for regular season games will she even have a chance to blow her whistle? In my mind completing the NFL Developmental program indicates that she has the knowledge of the game and its rules equivalent to any current male NFL official – so what is the reason for her not having a full time officiating job right after she completes the final stage? Will she just complete the program and disappear like Shannon Eastin?

A number of things must be considered upon questioning why females are virtually non-existent in the officiating world. Is it because they don’t play in the professional male sports so it is believed that they shouldn’t be able to officiate them? Or is it because having a female official could result in males being overly aggressive and disrespectful towards the female officials? In my eyes there seems to be no difference between a male and a female in black and white stripes, as long as the extensive knowledge on the sport and its rules are there. Being able to make the correct calls is not gender exclusive. Another reason may be that the physicality of the game poses as a threat to female officials, especially when dealing with 300 lbs. linemen. I argue that if a woman is extremely interested in officiating pro sports, she is going to be well aware of the harms she may receive as a result of the heated competition. Females compete in UFC, boxing and other dangerous sports; therefore the rare scenario of a lineman falling on top of a female official should not be a decisive factor for excluding them.

Thomas is quoted saying “I am a female, but I don’t look at myself as just a female,” she said. “I look at myself as an official.” From: National Post I admire this quote becase it illustrates the passion that Thomas has for the game and explains that she isn’t trying to change the world – she just wants to officiate the game she loves and do her job. It just so happens that she is also a female. If someone wants to work in sports whether on TV or on the sidelines, gender shouldn’t be a deciding factor if the knowledge and passion is present.

In recent years we have seen increases in the presence of females in various aspects of sports, from reporters, to talk show hosts and more, but there is still something preventing the transition to regular female officials in professional sports. This something is the same thing that is preventing the proportion of the female population from being reflected in politics. Now I admit that I am no expert, but it certainly does not take a rocket scientist to see the gender inequality and patriarchy that is before us today. Will this ever change? The evidence doesn’t look promising, but I sure hope it does.

Twenty years from now, I envision a world where I can tell my daughter that she can do whatever she wants to in life. If she dreams to be an official in the big leagues, then I hope to g-d that Violet Palmer isn’t her only predecessor.

Violet Palmer in Action
Further Reading: http://espn.go.com/espnw/news/article/6843564/calling-shots-officially-unbalanced

Watch: http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-am/0ap2000000224941/First-woman-NFL-referee