After enduring an offseason marred by scandal both on the professional (Bountygate) and collegiate (Penn State) levels, a feel good story was long overdue for the viewing public.
Thursday evening, after 93 seasons of professional football in the U.S., a female will officiate a game. Shannon Eastin has been a referee at the FCS level for 16 years and has also officiated the Arizona Cardinals "Red and White Game," an inter-squad scrimmage.
On Thursday night Eastin will join the ranks of Violet Palmer (NBA), Heather McDaniel (CHL) and Pam Postema (MLB) as a pioneer of the pinstripes. Even before her debut, the question hangs in the air if is this a PR stunt or progress?
For starters, the only reason Eastin has an opportunity to officiate is because the league has locked out their regular refs. This factor will only work against Eastin in terms of public opinion, because as a perceived "scab," some will question her qualifications. Things won't get easier once on the field with a replacement crew surrounding her. With the nation scrambling to cover this story, the performance of the entire crew will fall squarely on her shoulders. While this is completely unfair, ESPN has shown a willingness to magnify smaller stories in the interest of ratings (Tim Tebow).
Finally, we have the game itself, a prime-time match-up between Green Bay and San Diego. Both teams like to throw the ball, which will put pressure on the officiating crew and by association, Eastin. Each time a quarterback drops back to pass referees are forced to call, or not call holding, one of the most subjective penalties in football. The league's first replacement crew failed to accurately call holding in the preseason kickoff in Canton, Ohio, between the Saints and Cardinals, which resulted in players openly mocking the crew.
The combination of media scrutiny, mediocre co-workers, and an absence of tools to measure performance will turn Eastin's debut into nothing more than a PR stunt. The fact that the NFL has yet to welcome a female referee to their ranks is troubling, but this evening's game won't do much to advance crew diversity. NFL refs have long been an old boys club. As long as the league punishes players and coaches who speak out against officials, while encouraging announcers to cover for officials who've blown calls, the officiating at the NFL level will never be a meritocracy. A real step in the right direction would be for the league to reveal how they evaluate officials and how that plays a part into who throws flags on Sundays. Then we can move on to determine who is the best, something that I'm sure Eastin and fans nationwide truly want to focus on. It should be about why they're throwing flags, not who is throwing them.