Trailblazer? Media Coverage of the NFL’s First Female Referee

By Dunja Antunovic, Guest Contributor

In the April 8, 2015, edition of CBS News, anchor Scott Pelley begins “If there is one thing more difficult than breaking into the NFL as a player, it’s breaking in as an official. There are only 119. And breaking in as a woman? Impossible. Until today’s announcement.”

The camera cuts to a photo of a five-member family, with a blonde woman and a blonde, slightly balding man, surrounded by three children. CBS’s correspondent Jeff Glor narrates, “As a happily married mother of three, Sarah Thomas has experienced plenty unforgettable life moments. The last one, just last week.”

The newscast referred to the National Football League’s (NFL) announcement that Thomas would become the first woman to officiate full time in the league’s nearly 100-year history. With the headline “Against the odds, wife and mom of 3 now NFL referee,” Glor established Thomas’ credibility as an official by referring to her past as a collegiate basketball player, an experienced referee, and an efficient mother.

Thomas’ motherhood appeared prominently in ABC News’ Person of the Week segment as well when anchor David Muir introduced her as “A mother of three from Mississippi” who “already calls the shots” at home, but is “about to make the call on a much different playing field.”

Courtesty of eonline.com.

Sarah Thomas. Courtesty of eonline.com.

Evoking Thomas’ prior success in officiating, media outlets asserted that “She will be fine in the NFL,” that “She did a good job” at a Ravens game. The coverage also informed readers that Thomas did not mind tucking her hair under her cap, but that she stubbornly insisted on wearing make-up against the NFL’s orders (see Huffington Post and New York Daily News, for example).

As a feminist scholar, I am interested in how narratives about Sarah Thomas construct norms about women’s place in sport—and in football, specifically. A brief non-scientific overview of media coverage suggests that despite the overwhelmingly positive and celebratory portrayals, gender stereotypical frames, such as motherhood, heterosexuality, focus on appearance (hair, make-up, etc.) are alive and well. As a white, Southern, married, straight, mother, Thomas arguably does not violate conventions of acceptable femininity and, thus, became easily embraced as the first full-time female official in the NFL.

Although I find this type of coverage highly problematic, here I want to call attention to and address another related issue, a glaring omission in news stories (one that historically minded audiences might have already detected). Namely, the complete lack of context.

News stories of Sarah Thomas, by and large, miss the opportunity to provide information about the history of women in football and of women in officiating, and thus fail to situate Thomas in relation to the history of women in sport. Considering that the media dubbed the hire as a historical moment, I have yet to find an article that actually provides historical (and social) context that would help readers/viewers interpret the significance of this event.

Here is some help.

Thomas’ entrance into the NFL marks a significant moment in history because women are almost entirely excluded from any of the operations in the league, especially from those that directly impact the game. Since the development of American football in the late nineteenth century, women had a limited, mostly nonexistent, role in the sport. The NFL has capitalized upon women’s consumption of the sport, but not much else. In 2014, Bloomberg reported that female fans are the NFL’s “fastest-growing fan demographic,” both in viewership and in engagement in fantasy football. Beyond that, audiences can detect women on the field as cheerleaders or as sideline reporters—both of which are highly gendered roles that serve to relegate women to the margins in sport and in sports media.

Beyond the NFL, the sport itself has been slow to embrace women as athletes. The few teams and leagues that existed received little attention and attempts to launch professional women’s football leagues failed quickly. In 1974, women’s football advocates founded the National Women’s Football League (NWFL), which for the first time brought visibility to women who participated in the sport. By the early 1980s, sport historian Andrew Linden documents, the league disappeared. Except for a few fairly invisible leagues such as the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL) and the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), and the occasional news stories about a girl in a youth league or high school who gains temporary entrance to a boys team (remember Sam Gordon?), women’s participation in football is far from normalized in the US society.

There is also an absence of women referees in other sports, especially in men’s leagues. Few women have officiated men’s professional games in the most prominent US sports. MLB has never had a woman umpire. The NHL employed Heather McDaniel between 1995 and 1999, but no woman ever since (see article by ESPN’s Sarah Spain). In 1997, the NBA hired Violet Palmer the first woman referee, also first African American woman, but has since only had two women officials on the court full time, Dee Kantner and, more recently in 2014, Lauren Holtkamp (see article by USA Today’s Jeff Zillgit). No wonder that ESPN’s Jane McManus disappointingly observed in 2011 that “The numbers are indeed slim. No women call NFL, Major League Baseball or NHL games.”

Until now. Or until August 2012 when the NFL allowed Shannon Eastin to officiate temporarily during the labor dispute between the referees’ union and the league. As I observed in an earlier article, officials, coaches, players, journalists, and fans had mixed reactions to Eastin’s entrance. Comment boards, filled with derogatory statements, perpetuated misogyny and sexism. Players and fans worried that she would get hurt. Journalists, for the most part, celebrated her. But Eastin’s appearance in the NFL had a caveat, namely that it occurred due to a lockout. NFL’s former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira lamented that Eastin took the “first female official” honor away from Thomas, who was already in the pipeline to become promoted. Pereira asserted “If I were her, I would step aside and leave this huge milestone to Thomas, who truly deserves to be the trailblazer.” As though the NFL could not handle two women officials.

Well, Thomas became a trailblazer and, as a full time line judge, she is here to stay. But declaring her a trailblazer does not suffice without a deeper look into where the trail came from and where it leads. Thomas’ hire makes for some straightforward, feel-good, gender-stereotypical, headlines, but it calls for a much deeper analysis than what could be contained in a catchy headline.

Courtesy of nflplayerengagement.com.

Sarah Thomas. Courtesy of nflplayerengagement.com.

To interpret the NFL’s hire of Sarah Thomas, we would be advised to consider the status of women in officiating and the relatively slow movement of women into officiating positions in the major professional men’s leagues. Recognizing that these have been unique and isolated instances, we may want to ask deeper questions about the structures that prevent women from entering into these positions.

Historical and social context helps in detecting two main patterns in relation to the story: Just how late the NFL is in the game in terms of inclusion (if you can even call it such) of women and that hiring one woman has done very little to actually challenge structural barriers that prevent women from fully participating in the sport—in whatever capacity that may be. Media coverage and scholarship could aid in moving the conversation forward on these issues.

I would like to see media coverage provide a better sense of what it means for a woman to be a referee in these male-dominated leagues. Although many of the articles I read introduced Thomas’ path to the NFL, they hardly gave any information about what makes Thomas a trailblazer in the first place and why it is so difficult for women to get into these positions. Instead of talking about her hair, perhaps journalists could have given readers a better sense of the status of women in refereeing.

For instance, in an article for the RedEye, a Chicago Tribune publication, Christa Madison writes about her experiences as a soccer referee in Illinois. She provides numbers, context, retells personal experiences, and critically analyzes the barriers she and other women face in the profession. In another article, espnW’s  Jane McManus contextualizes last year’s news story about Thomas in relation to NBA’s hiring practices.

I do not intend to position these articles as models for covering women in sport as certainly they too merit scrutiny, but I do think that they include important elements (such as national statistics, trends, and comparisons) that can assist readers in interpreting the hire. I am sure that we will hear more about Thomas when she actually takes the field and I look forward to seeing coverage that gives us a window to the gender dynamics of the officiating world.

Further, moments of disruption—such as the hire of a first female referee in a league—also offer fruitful sites of scholarly exploration. Sport studies scholars, and sport historians in particular, could further knowledge by attending to the process, culture, routines, and professional ideals of refereeing. I am likely missing something, but in my quick search of scholarship on the topic (H/T to “Google Scholar”), I found plenty of journal articles that examine the physiological demands of officiating, the aggression directed at referees, and the gender biases in decision-making processes, but not many of these take a socio-cultural/historical perspective. In turn, socio-cultural/historical analyses of women’s status in sport rarely elaborate on referees.

In light of recent conversations, I see great opportunity for future research in this area. For instance, archival materials, such as meeting minutes, constitutions, and rulebooks, could expose gendered assumptions in institutional practices. Oral history interviews with decision-makers could provide further insight into processes that lead to women’s inclusion (or exclusion) in the profession. A historical analysis of media coverage of referees, either one that compares coverage of men to coverage of women or one that focuses on discourses specifically in coverage of women, could also help identify change over time and, thus, prepare us to detect reoccurring patterns. These are just a few ideas that come to mind.

In an interview with Fox News, host Greta Van Susteren asked Thomas, “Do you know other women officials?” Thomas responded “Oh, yeah, sure.” Van Susteren followed up “So we’re going to see—so you are the trailblazer but we will be seeing more soon?” Thomas said “I hope so and I hope that regardless if it’s a female or a male, you know, that the best officials are recognized for their talent and what they do on the field.”

I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon of celebrating the NFL’s hire of the first female referee. In fact, I am critical, as are other contributors to this blog, of the very culture associated with football (see Robert Gudmestad’s post, for example) and measured in my predictions as to how much this one hire will change the culture. But coverage of Sarah Thomas, at the very least, urges us to continue asking questions about the relationship between sport, gender, and media.

Dunja Antunovic recently completed her PhD in Mass Communications at the Pennsylvania State University. In the fall, she will be joining Bradley University’s Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication as an Assistant Professor. She can be reached at dunja@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @DunjaAntunovic.

One thought on “Trailblazer? Media Coverage of the NFL’s First Female Referee

  1. Pingback: Review of The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives | Sport in American History

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