Shannon Eastin, The NFL’s Referee Lockout, and Gender Barriers

Though I share some of Travis Waldron’s trepidation about the beginning of this football season, I have to admit I’m not ready to quit watching either, and that I’m excited for the season to begin. It’s not just that my co-manager and I crushed our fantasy draft, or that I need my Patriots back on the field to erase the memory of the Game That Shall Not Be Named. It’s also that, with mixed emotions, I’m looking forward to seeing Shannon Eastin take the field on Sunday, and the arrival of a woman in a position of authority in the closes thing America has to a common religion.

I hate that the first woman to referee an NFL preseason game and now possibly during the regular season–Eastin is scheduled to work the Lions-Rams game if the league and the referees don’t reach an agreement–got that opportunity because of a lockout. But the way her appearance in the preseason went has given me confidence that when a woman, maybe Eastin herself, makes it to the NFL without extenuating circumstances, things will go better than I could have hoped.

It would have been easy for players and coaches to point to Eastin in particular as an example of how the lockout was risking player safety. She, like many of the replacement officials, does not have the requisite experience to work as an NFL referee (though she is getting close), and as the first woman in her position might have been subject to additional scrutiny. But Eastin took care to reach out to the Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers before their preseason game in which she was the line judge, and the teams responded.

Both the Chargers’ coach Norv Turner and the Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy praised her pre- and in-game work. Chargers players shook her hand before play. Her one reviewed call was upheld. Everyone involved, in other words, behaved professionally, and with the recognition that history, even made under terrible compromises, is important. Given how poorly professional sports have treated female officials in the past–Major League Baseball has still never had a woman call a game–even when the only thing that made their debuts fraught was their gender, it’s miraculous that everyone involved in Eastin’s first game was able to separate a woman’s arrival in the NFL from the circumstances of her getting there.

I hope the NFL and the referees can reach an agreement quickly, given how little separates them. I hope, if that’s what she wants, that Shannon Eastin can work her way up to a regular job refereeing in the league. And I hope that once she gets there, she and the women who will join her, form a united front with the men who are locked out now.