The Time for the NFL's First Female Official is Now
By: The Football Girl | Posted: June 06, 2012
When it comes to the thick glass ceiling that has permeated much of the NFL’s history, women have made enumerable cracks in the past decade. We now make up approximately 43% of the league’s fan base, and over five million of us play fantasy football, most in a highly-competitive fashion. On the business side, women’s apparel has been the NFL’s fastest growing ancillary business for the past few years, and teams have made a concerted effort to add an array of women’s clubs and events to their fan offerings.
In conjunction, more and more women also risen above the testosterone-filled waters of the NFL landscape to land positions of prominence. ESPN the Magazine and espnW recently published an amazing list of “women who will change the way sports are played.” Included are Katie Blackburn, the daughter of, and heir-apparent to, Bengals owner Mike Brown; Kellie Masters, a trailblazing agent who represents Gerald McCoy, among others; and Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, the chief orthopedic surgeon for the Ravens. They have all helped to change the makeup of the NFL landscape.
However, women continue to be shut out in one crucial area, which if properly infiltrated, could cause that glass ceiling to come crashing down once and for all: on-the-field influencers. By using the term “on-the-field influencer,” I am referring to any position that shapes how a team is formed or how the game is played. Jobs under this banner would include any of a multitude in football operations, most notably in the coaching ranks. The problem is it would be virtually impossible for a woman to attain one of these jobs at the NFL, not for lack of aptitude, but for lack of experience. The overwhelming majority of coaches have played the game, whether on the college or pro level, and therefore have an intimacy with the game that can’t be matched by an outsider. I would not expect to see a Rooney Rule for women any time soon.
The scouting ranks are a different story. While there are currently no full-time female scouts, the precedent has been set. Linda Bogdan, the daughter of Ralph Wilson, was a full-time scout for the Bills in the late 70’s and 80’s and helped bring Thurman Thomas and Cornelius Bennett, among others, into the organization. Bogdan has since passed away, but she leaves a legacy that should pave the way for more full-time female scouts in the future.
But there is one type of “on-the-field influencer” that is perfectly positioned for a woman to assume -- right now. That of an NFL official. The NFL has locked out its current crop of referees due to a labor dispute and has already announced its intent to hire and train replacement refs. When it comes to female candidates to fill-in, there are multiple candidates.
The most famous is Sarah Thomas, who was also featured in that ESPN the Magazine list of change agents. Thomas has been a Division I official for over five seasons, and in 2009, was the first woman to officiate a bowl game. (Little Caeser’s Bowl - Ohio vs. Marshall.)
Another candidate is Catherine Conti, who has been more vocal than Thomas about her desire to become the NFL’s first female official. While Conti has most spent the past several years officiating high school and junior college games, she broke into the Division I ranks as a Southland Conference ref.
There is also Terri Valenti, a member of the Northern California Football Officials Association, who has officiated UFL games, a league that has largely adhered to the NFL’s rulebook.
Last summer, Carl Johnson, the NFL’s head of officiating already told ESPN’s Jane McManus that female officials in the league were on the horizon. Hiring one as a replacement ref would be an obvious first step to making that statement a reality. Additionally, the NFL, which is becoming very adept at the business of lockouts, could use some positive publicity.
I honestly have no idea how competent the officiating is of Thomas, Conti, Valenti or any female official, for that matter. But I am confident that if one of them makes the leap to the big leagues, they won’t be criticized because of their gender. It will be because they are entering a world where the universal language of fans starts and ends with “You suck, ref!” That kind of equality is a win-win for everyone.