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NFL expects female officials sooner than later

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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They've been doing their part-time jobs from one year to multiple decades, and they each have different outside professions. But the one thing that every current NFL official has in common is that each one of them is male.

That could be changing very soon. According to Jane McManus of ESPN.com, there are female officials at the Division I college level that could be promoted to the pros in the near future. Carl Johnson, the NFL's VP of officiating, told McManus that "we have some in our pipeline, and I expect we'll see it soon … our goal is to get the best people working this game."

Johnson also spoke to the increasing following the NFL has among female fans, but to current high-ranking college officials like Sarah Thomas, it's far more about quality — selections based on quotas will not survive in a position that is far more scrutinized at the NFL level. Thomas is believed to be the first woman to work a D-I game (in 2007) and the first to officiate in a bowl game -- she was a line judge at the 2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio.

"Any professional sport is at the highest level, and if they asked me to officiate at that level, I would not turn them down," Thomas told McManus. "But at the same time, I have the understanding at the D-I level [about] what it takes to keep you here, the energy it takes to get prepared. You are grateful to be officiating at the D-I level."

Thomas' opportunity has led to more openings; two more women officiated at the D-I level in 2010. McManus also talked with Katarina Milojkovic, a Serbian native who officiated the most recent International Federation of American Football Senior World Championship.

"They notice but by now, they are used to it," Milojkovic told McManus via email. "I've had both positive and negative experiences, but overall, I had more positive experiences. Sometimes when players or coaches realize they have female officials, they like to more challenge my authority on the field, but it does not hinder me. I stand my ground, and I have earned their respect."

Perhaps the most interesting thing Milojkovic discussed was her process from fan to official. "I wanted to take more active role in this sport [than] being just a spectator," she told McManus.

And that's why whatever barriers there may be for female officials at the NFL level will eventually come down. As Johnson said, the NFL's female fan base is growing exponentially, and with that will come more women who want to express their love for the sport by participating in whatever way they can.

There are female referees at the highest level of the NBA and FIFA soccer; at this time, breaking into baseball and hockey has been more difficult. As the country's most popular sport, professional football should be leading the charge to hire the most qualified officials regardless of gender, and it's encouraging to see that there doesn't appear to be any resistance to women officiating in the NFL.

Jen Mueller, a Seattle-based reporter and producer for ROOT Sports, officiated high school games in Texas and Washington state for 10 years. Jen's a colleague whose game knowledge I respect, and I asked her about the challenges female officials might face at the highest levels. First, as she told me, there will be catcalls and harassment, and there's just no way to avoid it.

"I think it varied … in Texas, I got harassed a lot more, and I don't really blame them, because they take football really seriously down there at all levels. It was hard for them to believe that I could be as serious about it as they were. Once you were around [the players and coaches] for a few games, they knew that you were out there working on it and studying and trying. I did get harassed by people going into the stadium quite a bit by people in Texas. When I moved here [to Washington], it was a little bit different. People here just don't view games the same way, and I found them to be a little bit more accepting. But wherever you are, once people realize that you're out there and you're consistent, they do appreciate someone who's trying to call a good game."

Second, any female official just starting out will most likely have to be more on the ball than the guys, just to stay above an elevated level of scrutiny. Mueller told me of instances in which a coach would ask her for a rule clarification after a flag was thrown … and then, the coach would ask the head official the very same question. More often than not, the answer was the same, which built a level of trust.

Mueller also had a message for the crews working with those female officials — as much as you may want to stick up for your colleague, you may not be doing her the favor you think you are.

"When you work with guys long enough, there is a camaraderie, and you don't like to see the people you're working with get picked on. But I think there were times when they actually got a little overprotective of me, where I had to ask them to take a step back."

And that may be part of the general psyche when the first few female NFL officials hit the field. "As a woman, you're fighting a lot of stereotypes out there," Mueller said. "You do not want to be the overemotional drama queen — I really had to make sure to keep my emotions in check. I might have let people go a little bit too far — I might have waited longer than my colleagues to flag somebody for conduct at any point in time, whether they were yelling at me or going over the line on the field."

As many exasperated (and slightly biased) fans, players and coaches would certainly opine, female officials couldn't do any worse than most of the guys ... and more often than not, due to the unique nature of their situations, they'd be highly motivated to do quite a bit better.

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