Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Female NFL Ref Receives Online Attention

When Shannon Eastin steps on the field during the Green Bay Packers versus the San Diego Chargers game, she will become the first woman to ref an NFL game. 

A couple of weeks ago, the NFL hinted that the referee lockout could lead to opening opportunities for replacement referees. Eastin was among them. On Monday, The Los Angeles Times  reported that Eastin is officially going to be a part of the ref crew. The online conversation is worth examining. 

A number of news outlets insinuated that this could be an important moment in gender equity. For instance, The Huffington Post called it a “barrier-breaking opportunity,” CBS called it an “interesting opportunity,” SB Nation, a prominent sports blog network, reported that Eastin is “poised to break a long-time barrier.”

In the meantime, Julie Hayes, a Yahoo! Contributor thinks that this “making history” narrative is “a joke” and “just wrong” because the replacement referees, including Eastin, have not been trained properly to be ready for such a high caliber game. To this, a writer on Feministing, a feminist blog, said that regardless of whether Eastin is ready or not, this is “still progress.” 

Cindy Boren from The Washington Post is also worried about the replacement, not because of gender issues, but because of the lack of experience these refs have.

And then there is ESPN. 

In this short video, the ESPN anchor – with a female symbol graphic behind him -- recites Eastin’s accomplishments in judo and telling us that “this is meant as a warning to any of the Packers or Chargers who may feel empowered to question one of her calls on Thursday night; they might wanna think twice about that.” 

Because she is going to take them out?

On a positive note, Kevin Seifert, who reported the news for ESPN.com, wrote the following:
“This is an important moment, and Eastin's assignment will generate relevant discussion on a number of levels. Hopefully there were no barriers for qualified women to reach the top of the football officiating ladder, but if there were, you would hope that Eastin's accomplishment would negate them.”

So it seems that we are witnessing a productive conversation about what it means for the NFL and for U.S. professional sports to have a woman on the field in this capacity.

What we can really learn from, though, are the comments to these articles. ESPN is monitoring (and removing them) every hour, but there are still more than 2000 comments, and counting, to Seifert’s article. Bill Williamson’s article got a few too.

Here are some themes that I detected at first glance, with an example for each:

-          Women belong to the kitchen, not the football field
“This is totally unfair. How can she be expected to referee an NFL game and make sandwiches at the same time?” and “Weird... how is she going to ref from the kitchen?”

-          Women are emotional (and generally unfit to make important decisions)
“Come on. First time a coach yells in her ear she's balling. Why you're at it, get the chicks off the field when the game is on. Hasn't been one half way decent women in the NFL, outside of those lovely Cheerleaders.”

-          Women have no idea about football


JUST WAIT...” (Capital letters in original text)

-          This political corrected-ness is ridiculous!
“Now we just need a dude to play in the lingerie football league and then I know the world is collapsing before my eyes” and “This is dumb unless she is the most qualified perosn for the job... sets back women if they gave her the gig just bc she is a woman”

-          It’s ok for her to ref, ONLY IF she is good looking (some of the contributors actually posted links to her picture here to determine if she is, indeed, good-looking enough to be “worthy” of their gaze):
“one question is she hot? if so the nfl is moving in the right direction if not i dont care” and “As long as she is attractive I'm cool with it.”

-          Even if she is a decent ref, the players are rude and uncivilized, hence we should protect her from harm
“I think it is a bad idea. You have immature players, who get DUI's, etc. They will have no sympathy for her. She will get called names, and sexist things thrown at her way. Also, if she gets caught in a pileup, it will look really bad. I give Ms. Eastin major props for being able to make it this far, but she may want to stop before something bad happens to her.”

-          Whatever. Just do a good job!
“I dont care if a woman, a man, or a man/pretending to be a woman Refs the game...just get the calls right.”

-          Finally!
“I'm a male and I'm thrilled that there will be a female ref, we are slowly overcoming societies barriers.”

One comment that also caught my eye was this one: “Hell yeah, good to see title IX coming to fruition!” After an overwhelming number of articles, documentaries and statements that were issued in celebration of Title IX’s 40th anniversary over the summer, I am particularly sad to see that Title IX is still horribly misinterpreted as the law pertains to federally funded educational institutions and has no implications to professional football.

What we learn from this online discourse is that news media outlets seem to be offering a balanced account of NFL’s decisions. We can also find strong opinions on gender issues that Eastin’s situation raised. And, the same old sexist (and homophobic) arguments that we are used to seeing whenever women enter a male-dominated field are also present.

The moment when Eastin steps on the field might be historic and, perhaps, even promising. For the NFL to “allow” women to officiate a football game is the right thing to do as there can hardly be a good reason as to why a female ref would be less competent than a male ref.  

But, clearly, we need to keep engaging in conversations about women’s role in sports. The internet is a great place for that. However, the internet is also a place where – regardless of how hard ESPN tries to monitor comments –  sexism and homophobia survive.  

So, let’s keep talking. Let’s do so with a particular attention to fan cultures and the relationship between gender and sports consumption. 

-- Dunja Antunovic