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Natalie Simon has spent much of her life on a soccer field, yet in those 32 years she’s rarely seen another person who looks like her.
“I haven’t had anyone to really identify with,” said Simon, who is Black and Native American. “I was always the only Black person on every team I played on. I was always the token Black girl.”
It was that way in high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on travel teams in South Florida and in college at Stetson, a small, largely white private school east of Orlando.
“I spent a lot of time wondering if I belonged,” Simon said. “I spent most of my career questioning if I was good enough. I think a lot of Black people, especially Black women, can relate to that.”
If Simon felt she stood out as a player though, she’s really about to break new ground as an official. Last month, she was added to the international panel of match referees by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, becoming one of four American women holding a FIFA badge, the highest ranking a referee can aspire to, and the first Black American woman to earn that honor, one that clears her to work international games and tournaments.
And the example she’s setting could open the door for others to follow.
“I can’t believe it’s 2022 and your first Black referee?” said Christina Unkel, who was a FIFA official for seven years. “Maybe I was ignorant. 'There’s no glass ceilings because that’s the American dream.' But until you see someone that looks like you, do you truly believe it or think ‘Hey, you know, there are people that look like me that do that’?
“Seeing is believing and once people see that, people will then realize it was missing in the first place. Then there will be little girls or others” to follow.
That’s a responsibility Simon’s embracing.
“I carry that with me on the field. I carry the weight of that,” she said. “Knowing that the decisions I make can impact what happens in the future for other Black women that are coming up behind me.”
Simon was born in Louisiana, the state she still considers home, and has researched her family’s lineage back far enough to know she’s descended from slaves on both sides; one great grandmother was part Choctaw.
“It’s kind of a miracle that I’ve arrived in this moment,” she said. “A lot of things have to fall into place. And a little bit of luck, you know, knowing the sacrifices that not only my parents, but my grandparents and my great grandparents, made for me to have the opportunities that I do.
“For me, everything is intertwined as far as what my family’s gone through, what I’m experiencing now and what I’m trying to do for future generations.”
Yet Simon never set out to blaze trails or make history when she first picked up a whistle. She just wanted to stay involved in soccer.
A high-energy, if not highly talented forward at Stetson, Simon wasn’t good enough to turn pro after college. So she hooked on with a semipro team — which in women’s soccer means mostly amateur — then tried coaching.
She didn’t enjoy either. The only other way to stay in the game was officiating, which didn’t seem like a good fit either since Simon spent much of her time as a player antagonizing referees. But she proved to be a natural, quickly climbing the ranks from refereeing age-group competitions to working in the USL Championship, the second tier of men’s professional soccer in the U.S., and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), one of the top women’s leagues in the world.
Rodney Kenney, a referee instructor and assessor and a former assistant coach at Stetson, said Simon possessed a number of traits he thought would make her an ideal official.
“First of all,” he said, “she’s super fast. A lot of female referees had trouble in the men’s game because they’re not fast enough to keep up. She was fast enough.
“Secondly, she has an attitude. That is, I’m not going to take s--- from anybody. She wouldn’t be cowered by critic[ism]. I just thought she’d do a great job.”
When Kenney coached Simon at Stetson, he said she was always the first player chosen when the women picked teams for intrasquad scrimmages.
“It wasn’t because she was a great player,” he said. “It was because they figured if they picked her, they wouldn’t get kicked by her. She went 110% every play, every time.”
“That’s why she’s a great FIFA referee,” he continued. “She never does anything halfway.”
But that hasn’t been enough to open the door to MLS, the top level of men’s soccer in the U.S., more than just a crack.
The NFL has had three female on-field officials — including Maia Chaka, who this season became the league’s first Black female official — and the NBA has had six full-time female referees. Even the American Hockey League, which is one step below the NHL, has 10 female officials this season.
But female officials are rare at the top ranks of men’s soccer. And those who do make it usually do so as assistant referees or fourth officials, who are mostly limited to making offside calls, determining possession when a ball goes out of play and managing substitutions.
Simon has served as the fourth official in some MLS games and also worked the championship game of the NWSL as the fourth official. But her future, she insists, is as a center referee, as the official with the whistle who controls everything else that happens in the game, in both the men’s game and in top international matches, such as the World Cup and Olympics, for the women.
Last season, Tori Penso became the first woman to work as a center referee in MLS in 20 years. Simon, Kenney promises, will be the next.
“Natalie will have no trouble,” he said. “You'll see her as an MLS referee, probably next year.”
Simon has proved she can handle the men’s game, refereeing 13 matches in the USL Championship, the second-tier men’s professional league in the U.S. Behind her are two other Black female referees, Alyssa Nichols, who worked the middle in three USL Championship games last year, and Anya Voigt, who has refereed in the third-tier USL 1 as well as in women’s college games in the SEC.
“These women are being put in those positions because they can do it, not because they want women in those positions,” Kenney said. “They’re put in there because they’re good referees. There are a lot of guys that are not anywhere near what Natalie is. She’s really, really good. She was good from the get-go.”
Just to get on the field, referees must pass both a written exam on the rules of the games and an arduous physical one that includes a series of 40-meter sprints and an interval test of high-speed runs covering 75 meters. And there is no wiggle room for gender; women must achieve the same thresholds as men.
But the more difficult challenge may be trying to blend in with the male players while standing out as a woman. Proof that you’ve passed that one comes when the players call you “sir,” the term most use when addressing male officials.
“That means they’re not really paying attention to the fact that I’m a woman and they’re OK with it. They’re not bothered,” Voigt said.
Race can be a more intractable barrier.
“It’s definitely there,” said Voigt, who in addition to being a fellow referee is also Simon’s partner and confidant.
“For our white colleagues, there’s plenty of white males. So even for a white woman it’s just, ‘OK, well now we’re seeing more.’ You don’t see Black men out there. And if history has taught us anything, if Black men haven’t broken through, then we’ve got to wait.”
Voigt, like Simon, was the only Black player on her club soccer team in South Florida and she gravitated to goalkeeper because that’s the position of Briana Scurry, the most prominent Black player on the women’s national team. She had few other role models.
”That was the experience. Growing up in the [soccer] culture, I had gotten used to it,” she said. “When I went into officiating, it was very white. It was no different for me because that’s what I was used to seeing when I was playing.”
That’s beginning to change on the playing side. When Pepperdine’s Lynn Williams joined the women’s national team in 2016, just 14 women of color had played soccer for the U.S. in World Cup or Olympic competition in the previous 25 years, according to the Washington Post. The team the U.S. took to last summer’s Tokyo Games had six Black players.
Yet no Black American woman has managed or officiated for the national team.
“I actually find it pretty amazing how many people in my generation continue to play without seeing representation of themselves,” Williams said. “You do feel a little bit out of place. There’s parts where you fit in just because you love the game. But there’s always that missing piece where you’re like ‘people just don’t look like me.’
“I have to give props to Natalie for even continuing in this space. Going from a player and being in a space where you don't feel like you necessarily fit in, then going to refereeing where you feel you don't fit in again, I do not think it's easy to do that. If you can dream something you can do it, but usually it takes somebody looking like you to do it for you to have that dream.”
Making Simon the first Black American woman with a FIFA badge is a big step in making that dream seem attainable, said Kari Seitz, head of the women’s refereeing program for FIFA.
“Diversity is inherent in the work we do,” said Seitz, the only official of either gender to have worked four Women’s World Cups and four Olympic tournaments. “Leaders [are] finally recognizing that quality is key when making appointments. Gender, race, religion, motherhood are not factors.
“Hopefully with more women role models we’ll get more women referees involved in the U.S.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.