Shannon Eastin: Female NFL Referee Will Make History on Thursday Night Football

I love football. I grew up in a football town, went to a Division 1 college, and play couch-side coach during autumn weekends.

Simply put, I am a die-hard fan of the female persuasion.

And it’s an exciting time for women and football – for the first time ever, a woman will referee a National Football League (NFL) game this Thursday when the San Diego Chargers play the Green Bay Packers in a preseason match-up with current NFL officials currently locked out. 

Shannon Eastin, a referee with 16 years of collegiate football experience, is setting a precedent for women in one of the highest profile and highly profitable leagues in the United States. In a sport where machismo rules, the integration of women into game officiating at this level is something to behold and applaud. Since women make up 44 % of football fans, I say kudos to the NFL for breaking the tradition of all male referees. 

But questions are bound to come up: Can Eastin make an easy transition from a mid-level college (Mid-Eastern Athletic) conference to the big-boy pros? Will she make the right calls? Will she be a “distraction”? Will the NFL suddenly turn its entire officiating corps into a football version of “A League of their Own”? (Just kidding!)

These are legitimate concerns, and this is not the first time they have arisen around female officiating  integration. Sarah Thomas, Catherine Conti, and Terri Valenti have made jumps into football officiating with success and respect despite early trepidation.                                                                                                                                    

And apprehensions surrounding women officiators are not limited to football, eventually surfacing across the spectrum of sports long dominated by men. But in fact, women have recently made strides in this field despite the misnomer that femininity will interfere with game-play. Soccer aka football, rugby, all levels of basketball, mixed-martial arts (MMA), and hockey have seen the likes of female refs of both women’s and men’s competitions of varying degrees. Lady refs are tough, too.

In a world where the population of women will slowly equal, then surpass the number of men, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if one day, more girls play sports then boys and choose to become fully integrated professionally upon adulthood, be they player, coach, ref, etc. While these women and their associated leagues are tearing down barriers, a lot more still needs to happen for a real breakthrough, but it’s a positive start.

Still, Eastin is under a lot of pressure in this exclusively male game. Critics have already dubbed her selection “a travesty” based not on her gender, but her credentials, and the fact that she is a replacement when NFL refs are locked out in a labor dispute. I’m willing to accept those criticisms for now because she has yet to be tested on the NFL stage. But criticisms about being a woman in a traditionally male sport? Unless male referees are immune to mistakes, let Eastin and all women referees have their day and judge by actions, not gender. At least the Chargers seem to agree.