The NFL Is Breaking A Gender Barrier This Week
Something historic is happening tomorrow in the National Football League: Shannon Eastin will become the first female line judge to referee a professional game when she calls the preseason opener between the Green Bay Packers and the San Diego Chargers. Eastin, who has sixteen years of referee experience, including four in college football, is getting the job out of necessity: the NFL has locked out its usual ref staff after contract disputes.
Image courtesy of Helmet2Helmet
This is a big deal. Football, in American culture, is perceived as the Great Male Space. It’s an activity that bonds men together and lets them be men, away from the drudgery of dealing with women. It’s pure Americana fantasy: the boys getting together to watch the game in a ritual of male bonding. It’s beautiful, and glorious, and we women just can’t get it. Women have no place in the cultural rhetoric of football. The only opportunity for a female player is the Lingerie Football League—and it’s hard to think of a way to refute the claim that paying women to play rough-and-tumble sports in their underwear is objectifying. There are women football reporters, but they’re relegating to the sidelines, updating us on injuries and asking players to talk about their emotions about the game. They’re never invited to give any meaningful analysis of the game itself. Even the advertising in football operates under the Great Male Space assumption. Many commercials operate with a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge, now that we’re away from the missus let’s all be ourselves,” strategy. Guess what, advertisers–you’re missing a huge demographic.
The thing about the Great Male Space assumption is that it’s completely untrue. There are plenty of women who love football and can spend hours debating the merits of a passing offense versus a run offense. Here’s some anecdotal evidence: I am a heterosexual lady who loves football. (Go Ravens!) I also love lipstick, nail polish, and literature, but I’ll talk about the ridiculousness of the tuck rule for hours. I can think of at least five close lady friends who similarly love football–and I mean they love football in the paint-your-face, scream-at-the-television way. None of us did it to attract men or to make men think we’re cool. (We are cool, we don’t need to pretend.) In fact, several of my close guy friends are nowhere near as devoted to football as we are. On Sundays, we’re the ones getting everyone together to watch games. We’re the ones trekking to a bar across town because it’s the only place playing your team’s game.
If you live in America, where this kind of football is most popular, I guarantee you can find a football-loving lady within your circle of acquaintances. There’s nothing uncommon about it. Yet, due to our cultural mythology, we’re excluded from the world of football fans. Oh, there have definitely been strides. The NFL sells jerseys in women’s sizes, but there’s not as great of a selection. You generally find your media stars or your quarterback’s jersey in a women’s size, not the fantastic lineman who holds the team together. Why? Because women don’t really know the game, right?
Image courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens, A.K.A. the best team in football
This is why having a female ref in the NFL is such a big deal. Referees are a huge part of the game. If you’re a football fan, you have a story about the time a major play was called back due to a holding penalty, or the time a pass interference call set up your running back for a game-changing touchdown. The referee is given a huge position of power. She’s the final word. Listen to sports radio on a Monday morning and I guarantee you’ll often hear people calling in to complain that the referees decided the game. If Shannon Eastin can be accepted into this upper echelon, it will change the way women are perceived as football fans forever. If she can be an authority on the game, why can’t us female fans be Monday-morning quarterbacks too?
I strongly believe that sports are a great arena for breakthroughs in civil rights and cultural change. So, congratulations, Ms. Eastin. As a female football fanatic (say that three times fast), what you’re doing means a lot to me.
Do you think this is historic? Are you a proud female football fan? Do you a) agree or b) strongly agree that the Baltimore Ravens are the best team in the NFL? Join in the discussion in the comments section!
Header image courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks.