A Mid-life Leap Across Football’s Gender Barrier
By Mary Harvill
With the radio on, I was driving toward Spokane along Highway 2 in early June when an opportunity jumped out at me.
“…We really need more football officials because we cover three hundred plus youth football games each year,” the voice said.
Such was the demand for new referees, the voice continued, that it was likely applicants would actually get to work games in the coming season.
I can imagine the audience to whom this plea for help was intended. I didn’t imagine it was an invitation aimed at a widow with a daughter just out of college.
But why couldn’t it be me?
John Harvill, an uncle to my late husband, Jim, was head football coach at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland for thirty years. And Jim, himself, was an avid sports fan. When he passed away five years ago he left me with priceless memories, a heightened passion for sports, and an enormous TV screen. This, alone, was a reason to at least think about becoming a football referee.
Except I really didn’t think about it. Before I’d traveled the length of a football field further South on Highway 2 my brain shouted, “I can do that!”
As I reflect on this, there must have been a conference “upstairs” with Uncle John and Jim. Having provided the divine inspiration that led to my decision to become a football referee, they must have known how entertaining it would be to look down from the ultimate skybox as the season unfolded, to watch me earn my referee stripes on the football field. Evidently, heaven isn’t as entertaining as one imagines it would be.
In any event, the die was cast. I was going to become a football ref. I was also going to keep this decision on the “down low” so nobody would try to talk me out of it. Everyone has a mid-life crisis and the cause-effect equation will manifest itself in different ways—a sports car, a trophy wife, a bigger house, surgically enhanced boobs—you get the idea. One way to confront my mid-life crisis would be to cross a gender barrier, with a whistle and a flag.
I just knew I could inhabit this role. It turns out that, on a football field densely populated with men and boys, “the Mom voice” garners immediate respect. I used it like a whistle, and was amazed at the results.
My “class” of fellow first year officials consisted of 10-12 guys plus me. At one of our first meetings, we met the members of the governing board who gave us a background briefing about themselves and how long they’ve been officiating football games. Training consisted of weekly classes beginning in the middle of July, led by the IEFOA training director Randy Searcy, and several other officials. Randy and the other trainers were very careful to address us as “guys and lady” or “guys and Mary” so as not to offend me. To be so warmly welcomed in the ranks of male, football officialdom was truly amazing to me. I had prepared myself for worse, much worse.
As for the curriculum, my fellow apprentice officials were given three books to read. One was the rules, the second was a casebook reflecting examples of how the rules are interpreted, and the third was a mechanics book—the ”how to” of what happens on the football field. This reminded me of law school. We set about reading the rules book and discussing the rules in each weekly class. Reading rules is dry but is made more lively by discussion.
There was a certification test before we could be assigned to our first game. This was not the bar exam, thankfully, but there were several review courses at Jack and Dan’s Bar & Grill .
To supplement the reading, we had several sessions on the field at Dwight Merkel Sports Complex and on the stadium field at Gonzaga Prep, my daughter’s high school alma mater. During the on-field training, I became better acquainted with my fellow officials and learned we shared common fears, it’s just that the guys tend to be more subtle and reserved in their response to fear. During the Gonzaga Prep training session, the “snaps” were fast and furious. All of us first year officials were scrambling and collectively thinking “Whoa! Will I be able to keep up with this pace?” and “I feel so clueless!”
The epicenter for the training and the games themselves would be the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex that sprawls like Kansas beyond the north Grandstand at Joe Albi Stadium in Northwest Spokane. High school football games, WSU football spring training games and Spokane Shadow soccer games take place at Albi. Merkel is an immense pasture of field turf lined for football and soccer, baseball/softball diamonds. The fields are brightly illuminated with stadium lights for evening games, and the facility includes nice amenities like covered shelters and restrooms and spacious parking. There aren’t a lot of bleachers for crowd seating but no worries there, blankets and lawn chairs arrive with the spectators along with coolers of drinks and food.
In September I became a certified football official, and the only female referee at for the 2014 season. All first year officials are assigned as Head Linesman at each game. The Head Linesman is responsible for the person holding “the box” (the first down marker) and the “chain crew” –the guys and gals who make sure the chains are properly stretched to show how many yards are needed to gain for the team on offense to make a new first down. I originally thought I’d be holding the “box” and working my way through the officiating positions from there. So I was pretty excited that I was going to have a real responsibility, telling the chain crew where to position themselves.
The silence after I dropped the flag for unsportsman-like conduct had a golden quality to it. But then Coach Caveman chose to take it up with the head referee–the “White Hat.” White Hat told me later that Coach Caveman asked him to pick up my penalty flag. Request refused. “If Mary asks you to do something, then you should do it,” he told Coach Caveman.
My first “un-official” game consisted of working alongside another more experienced official at the Head Linesman position. As I jogged into position in my referee attire, I realized “OMG, I’m really doing this!” I maintained my composure as best as I could, projecting an “it ain’t no thing” air of confidence, as though I‘d been refereeing for oh, at least two weeks.
After working a few games with another experienced official, I was encouraged to go it alone. I showed up to my first solo game at Merkel one early September evening, and stuffed my fears into my black polyester pants with the white strip on the side.
Happily, my first few games went smoothly. Yes, there was some chirping in my ear, some grumbling, and “I can’t believe she’s telling me that” looks and remarks. But for the most part I eased into the role of head linesman without incident. My fellow officials were immensely supportive in this regard, helping me learn the protocols—zipping up my ref shirt to a more respectable level, taking my hat off and placing it over my heart during the national anthem, showing me where to position myself on the field during kick-off’s and at the quarter changes.
The highlight of my season was my first varsity game assignment as an official and a September football game at Gonzaga Prep. What an incredible honor to take the field with the other very senior, seasoned members of the officiating crew. My female officiating presence created a “situation” because the pre-game meetings for the officials traditionally took place in the boys locker room. Having a female in an area populated by semi-naked men and boys was not going to fly this year. So the Gonzaga Prep staff did some quick thinking and re-assigned the officials to a classroom far from the boys locker room and unlocked the girls locker room for me to use.
Along the way, I discovered the usefulness of what I’ll refer to as the “Mom voice.” Since I am a Mom—knowing that all Moms are responsible for telling everyone in their families where to be from time to time—I just knew I could inhabit this role. It turns out that, on a football field densely populated with men and boys, “the Mom voice” garners immediate respect. I used it like a whistle, and was amazed at the results.
To be sure, there were some exceptions. Not to belabor the point, but some men do not have good relationships with women. I was reminded of this by the way the men handled my presence on their sideline. Again, most of them were respectful. For those who weren’t, they learned the hard way that I am not to be trifled with. I don’t care that I may have been seen as an interloper by virtue of being a woman. Suffice to say caveman antics were not to be tolerated on my watch.
And that doesn’t mean I’m a bitch, by the way. I would pause to point out, here, that guys aren’t considered bitchy when they deliver the bad news about a call that doesn’t go the coaches’ way in a calm, direct voice. I should also note, some of the refs I worked with were superb at diffusing the anger through the presentation of the bad news. “And here’s another call you aren’t going to be happy with” one White Hat said to a head coach.
If my role and gender remained a problem this could bring to the fore the reminder that I carry with me the ultimate football weapon: the yellow penalty flag. Suffice to say, a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct is the grand arbiter of on the field behavior that, in addition to the fifteen step walk off on the field, may also result in dismissal of the coach or player from the field of play, forcing them to view the remainder of the game from the spacious, Dwight Merkel Sports Complex parking lot.
Verbal reminders to coaches who were stepping out of line usually did the trick. When coaches weren’t listening—or as Jeff Foxworthy says “have a car key in their ear”—I would repeat my reminders to them. Still, I did have to throw the flag on one coach this season for his dismissive conduct after I’d asked him to step away from his team so I could counsel him on his remarks and behavior towards me. He refused to honor my request and that was the end of the line for me.
I dropped the yellow flag and 15 yards were assessed against his team. The parents on the sidelines went crazy and the catcalls got worse for a few minutes. Then for a few moments, at least, there was a sort of stunned silence, silence with a golden quality. It was then that Coach Caveman proceeded towards the “White Hat,” the head referee ultimately in charge of the game. The White Hat told me later that Coach Caveman had asked him to overrule my penalty flag.
“If Mary asks you to do something, then you should do it,” White Hat had replied.
“And here’s another call you aren’t going to be happy with” one White Hat said to a head coach.
Not more than 30 seconds later was Coach Caveman in my ear barking about some other perceived penalty occurring on the field. With 8 seconds left in the game, I looked at him and said, “Really? You want to go there again?” Then I turned and ran from him along the sideline.
I wish there were some other way to achieve the same result without penalizing everyone on the team for the behavior of an adult, even if that adult is the coach. Somehow, if the coach were removed from the game, the kids would survive. The kids get the message to be respectful. I am bewildered as to why the adults who talk the talk, can’t walk the walk on this point.
More often than not, the interactions are humorous. One coach pointed out to me that nobody asks Ohio State University Head Football Coach Urban Meyer to maintain the 2 yard distance between the sideline and the area for the coaches and players to congregate. “You aren’t Urban Meyer” was my snappy retort. Again, an amazed look. (‘Wow, she apparently knows the game.’)
Sports are often suggested as an outlet for anger and rage. The ferocity of hits in football, the physical challenge of wrestling or skiing down a treacherous mountain slope are a testament to this. For spectators, yelling at the officials and the players allows a person to express their pent up anger or rage in a socially acceptable way though this has gone too far with injuries and assaults by parents and other spectators on sporting officials. I agree that this is a troubling and dangerous trend.
But I don’t want to dwell on the negative. After all, what’s the point of moving to resolve a mid-life crisis if you can’t bring the best of yourself to the experience you’re diving into?
Despite the warped behavior of a few, what I can report is that what’s happening on local football fields as the seasons turn from fall to winter is inspiring, heartwarming and charming.
From my post as head linesman, I was often able to listen in on conversations during time out conferences between the coaches and the team. The comments I overheard were inspiring— “there is no reason to blame your teammate for what happened. There’s no reason to do that. Let’s move on” and “I am really proud of you guys for the way you came together and played.” Being able to witness these exchanges made me proud to work with these coaches and their kids. It demonstrated the value of playing sports at all ages.
What an honor and pleasure it is for me to watch the next generation of kids come along and how the kids, through their behavior “school” the adults on both how to play the game and how to behave with everyone they interact with, including a female football referee. I have been both humbled and inspired and look forward to many more years of officiating football games.