Earlier this month, the National Football League officially kicked off its regular season. As fans across the country dusted off their jerseys, planned their tailgate parties and gathered around the TV, history was being cemented before their eyes.
On Sept. 9, Shannon Eastin became the first female ever to officiate in an NFL regular-season game. She was a line judge in the St. Louis Rams–Detroit Lions game.
Eastin is part of the league’s replacement referee crew, which will be officiating games this season while the Referee Association is involved in a labor dispute with the league owners. Never before has a woman donned an NFL referee uniform.
To see Eastin and the NFL break such boundaries is truly inspiring. The message being sent is that there is no place for sexism in the league. After all, it is 2012, why shouldn’t females be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts?
Coaches and players have praised Eastin’s job and noted her place in history.
“She was confident and in control,” Chargers coach Norv Turner told the media, after Eastin officiated a preseason matchup between his team and the Green Bay Packers.
After the game, Turner told the media that he took a picture with Eastin to mark the moment in history. Some of the players shook hands with her to commemorate it. And the hat and whistle she used in the game are expected to be displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
However, not everyone appreciated that a woman was on the football field.
Sexist comments flooded blogs and social media sites. Some male commenters on an ESPN blog agreed that they did not care if Eastin was on the field, as long as she could “make a good sandwich.” And on Twitter, someone tweeted that Eastin did not belong on the football field, but rather “in the kitchen.”
I tend to think that most of these pig-headed comments were from people who made a bad attempt at a joke. But I’m sure for some male commenters, it does reflect the way they feel about the opposite sex.
Other fans refrained from ripping Eastin, but seemed curious about her resume and knowledge of the sport. The fact is that Eastin is a 16-year veteran of officiating games. She referees in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference of NCAA Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision.
So I have to wonder does it really matter what gender is calling a team’s penalties?
“You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch someone officiate a game,” NFL Executive Vice President Ray Anderson has stated.
On Sundays, I don’t care who referees the games as long as teams are getting fair calls. The whole issue of people disliking Eastin as a referee is ironic, especially since fans have been expressing their displeasure with all the blown calls by the replacement officials. The refs they are referring to almost always happen to be males.
Eastin’s gender is totally irrelevant to how she referees games. She should only be judged on her job performance.
I can’t imagine what the uproar would have been like if she actually played in a game, but perhaps we are headed to that milestone much quicker than we think.
Recently, ESPNW and the Ventura County Star ran stories highlighting females who play football on their high school teams. Erin DiMeglio plays third-string quarterback for South Plantation High in Florida and Hannah Greene is the backup kicker for Nordhoff in California.
DiMeglio and Greene are not alone in their feats. More than 700 girls are currently playing football nationwide, according to Women’s Sports Foundation.
If you’re still skeptical about women transitioning into professional “male” sports, just know that it has already been done. In fact, it’s history.
In 1992, Manon Rheaume became the first female goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League. Rheaume retired in 1997, and today she runs a foundation in which she uses her experience as the first female NHL hockey player to inspire young girls to reach for their dreams while overcoming obstacles.
The recent attacks on Eastin show that sexism is still alive in the U.S. However, we could be close to a day when women actually suit up for an NFL game. Unless fans are willing to abandon their team, they’ll be cheering for the females making plays.
Michelle Kapusta can be reached at email@example.com.