Female refs deserve their shot

Sarah Thomas, left, and Maia Chaka chat during the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco in December. The pair are on the NFL's list of officials for the 2014 season. Larry Placido/Icon SMI

Let's look at what it takes to be a good referee at the professional level.

You need a good eye, years of training through the ranks, a calm air of authority and a Ph.D.-level study of the rulebook.

Notice that none of the above is gender-exclusive.

Last week, the NFL released its list of officials for the 2014 season. Two women are on that list, Sarah Thomas and Maia Chaka, and are in the final stage of the development program. The stage may last several years.

"Once an official is in that group, that's really make-or-break. You're either going to come into the league or finish your career in college," NFL's vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said.

Although the league didn't intend to pair Thomas and Chaka, sometimes milestones like this may be more easily shared than carried alone.

This year, Thomas and Chaka are part of a group of 21 officials who will referee a preseason game. Next year, they will be eligible for regular-season NFL games. They would be the first nonreplacement female refs in the history of the NFL.

"The long-term goal is to develop a pipeline of female officials," Blandino said. "Diversity is very important."

A year ago, Thomas was part of an NFL clinic on officiating in Staten Island for high school-age girls. Thomas was an effective speaker, with a self-assuredness that she developed when she was officiating in Conference USA. There, she revealed that she was temporarily sidelined when unexpectedly pregnant with her third child, who made them a family of five in December 2012.

"Surprise!" Thomas said.

Technically, Thomas and Chaka will not be the first women to officiate an NFL game. That honor went to Shannon Eastin, who was a replacement referee during the 2012 lockout. But they would be the first full-time female referees hired by the league.

Bringing in two women gives critics a more diffused target, but it also provides a support system of sorts. Each of them is not alone.

There are always a few in the peanut gallery who gallantly fret over the delicate woman who might get plowed into by a 300-pounder. Not sure many of the male refs would stand up too well to that, either, but women play roller derby, run marathons and issue killer armbars. I think anyone signing up for an NFL officiating job knows that reflexes might be tested, male or female.

There may be a segment that just has trouble accepting women in roles of authority when it comes to sports -- but that should never be a reason to keep a qualified ref out of the game.

Those critics may be one reason that gains are sometimes made in pairs. When Augusta National finally added a woman to the membership rolls, it actually added two: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore.

When the NBA added female referees -- back in 1997 -- it brought in Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner to officiate the NBA in the WNBA's inaugural year. Val Ackerman was the president of the WNBA when that happened.

"It seemed at the time like a lot was happening at once on the subject of the advancement of women in basketball," said Ackerman, now the Big East commissioner. "It was a great story internally and externally. Two women paid their dues and were getting their shot."

Palmer is still in the league, her 17-year career a testament to the decision to hire her, as Johnette Howard detailed last year for ESPN.com. Palmer has been completely accepted.

"People don't even think of her anymore as being a woman doing that job," Ackerman said.

She's just a ref.

Richard Lapchick of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida said the NBA has always been the most forward-thinking American sports league in terms of diversity and inclusion, from team administration to the league front office.

"It's about time that we're learning this," Lapchick said. "There's no physical skill necessary to officiate a game."

No referee has to tackle the running back. She just needs an attainable fitness level; Ed Hochuli-style guns are optional. The main requirement of the job is judgment. But even the NBA stagnated on the officiating front, with Palmer one of the first -- and now only -- full-time women in the league since 1997.

Right now, nine women officiate in the NBA D-League. Two of those nine women, Brenda Pantoja and Lauren Holtkamp, are eligible to officiate NBA preseason games, and the goal is to prepare the best talent for the top level.

Basketball may have been a more natural door to open because women play the sport at every level, whereas women in football are open to the critique that they never played. Thomas certainly encountered that scrutiny from the moment she walked into a meeting for people interested in officiating high school football 18 years ago. She wasn't looking to be a revolutionary. She just loved the game.

Women like Thomas, Chaka, Palmer and Kantner should get a chance to succeed or fail on their own merits. Just like the men who came before them.