The lockout of regular NFL referees due to an ongoing labor dispute is giving one substitute a shot at making history. On Thursday night, Shannon Eastin will be the first woman to officiate an NFL game when she helps call the preseason opener between the San Diego Chargers and the Green Bay Packers.
For Eastin, it's a personal dream come to fruition. "It may sound crazy to some people, but I think I can be in the NFL some day," she told The Arizona Republic back in 1999. "I told them I would go to referee the NFL in Europe for five years if that's what it takes."
The Arizona native got her start in sports as a competitor. A former world-class athlete in judo, she won six national championships. At age 11, she was youngest judo athlete ever to be accepted to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. She's been a football referee for sixteen years, the last four working for the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference.
A number of players have publicly supported the choice. "I think it's a great idea, giving her the opportunity to be out there, calling football," fullback Le'Ron McClain told U-T San Diego. "It'll feel kind of weird seeing a lady out there, but I think she'll do a good job with it." Other players referenced Violet Palmer, who with Dee Kantner in 1997, became the first women to referee a professional men's sport. "I remember going to a couple basketball games and seeing a woman referee refereeing NBA basketball games," said tight end Randy McMichael. "A woman is just as capable as a man to do anything."
Not surprisingly for a male-dominated sport where it's a huge deal for a woman to become a high school men's ref or coach, let alone be working for the pros, there has been some pushback. The Bleacher Report speculates that nine officials who were disciplined for resisting training replacements did so in part because of Eastin. Some fans will surely challenge her. A commenter on U-T San Diego complained, "She just jumped over the heads of many refs much more qualified than her by virtue of her sex. Why is this so good?"
Being a woman isn't going to do Eastin any favors. On the contrary, she'll be under a microscope on Thursday night because of her gender. Slate points out that Bernice Gera, the first woman to umpire professional baseball (in 1972) was so harassed that she quit after a single game. Presumably, Eastin isn't it to make any grand statements but because she loves the job. As Sarah Thomas, a Division I referee and NFL-hopeful told ESPN a year ago, "You don't necessarily carry that banner of being first, you do it because you want to be there."
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