Print and Go Back Commentary [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Updated: August 9, 7:14 PM ET
Shannon Eastin ready for scrutiny

By Jane McManus

Shannon Eastin wants in.

Speculation has been that the NFL thrust Eastin, who on Thursday will become the first female to officiate an NFL preseason game, into the spotlight during a tense labor negotiation with the NFL Referees Association.

That's not exactly true.

Eastin, a 42-year-old referee crew chief in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, answered an email sent by the league to potential replacements. Yes, she is aware that, like the replacement officials in 2001, she may never work another NFL game. But Eastin has always dreamed of working at least one, ever since growing up watching the game with her dad.

Shannon Eastin
Shannon Eastin will be a long way from her usual place as a referee in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference when she serves as the line judge for the Packers-Chargers preseason game on Thursday.

"For me, it is a bit of a different situation," Eastin said during a conference call on Tuesday. "It was an opportunity for me to get in and to show that I am capable. The NFL has been on the verge, and there has been a lot of talk about them wanting to bring in a female. Quite frankly, I thought this was the perfect opportunity, whether it is a trial or they see and think, 'Wow, this can work.' For me, I did give it some consideration, but I felt that it was something that I needed to do."

But there is a lot that Eastin doesn't know. Like many of the referees filling in for the locked-out crews, she has less officiating experience and is less familiar with the rulebook than the regulars. She was not sure, for example, how you become an NFL official outside of this expedited process. Eastin has 17 years of experience as an official, but most in the high school ranks. She has been a referee in Division I-AA for four years, with no bowl game experience. To become an NFL official, she would need at least five years in the Division I college ranks, where scouts from the NFL recruit. If she were high in the pipeline for a legitimate NFL job, she would likely know the process.

Sarah Thomas, who has been a Conference USA official for five years, has had more training and faced more years of scrutiny than Eastin. Thomas has worked at a higher level and officiated bowl games. But if Thomas were to take her rightful place in line to be the first female official in the NFL, she would have to cross a picket line and sacrifice a potential career in the league once the labor dispute ends.

It's all very complicated.

The fact is that the NFL has been evaluating female officials alongside male officials for some time. The NFL's head of officials, Carl Johnson, said last year he thought a woman would be officiating soon. He said the league did not care about gender as much as it did about ability.

Eastin, who will be the line judge for the Green Bay Packers-San Diego Chargers preseason game Thursday, will be subjected to intense scrutiny. Many women want to see a sister succeed in a pioneering role. But we are also aware that if she fails, because of a lack of training and support, it will make it harder for the next woman to come along.

Replacement referees almost by definition lack some of that training.

Can the NFL download two years of training about arcane penalties and defenseless-player protocol into these new officials in just a few weeks, as if they've been plugged into the Matrix? Probably not; they are all bound to make mistakes. And Eastin's mistakes are bound to be picked apart because of her gender.

But you know what? Eastin knows that, too.

"I have always put the most pressure on myself, understanding that pretty much everything I do is going to be magnified," Eastin said. "I know what I signed up for. I have always said I need to be 'bigger, stronger and better' and make sure I know the rules. I have to control absolutely every aspect of everything I can control to make sure I do things even better than the men that are working. I am OK with that. I am human, we all make mistakes. When I do, people may look at it more -- some will say, 'She is a human, we make mistakes' and some may say, 'It is because she is a woman.'"

Eastin knows the deal. She isn't a foil, a prop or a "Hey, look over here!" attraction as the NFL rolls out a group of officials who will be called scabs. She is a woman who got to fast-forward an opportunity and roll the dice on her future.

And who would deny her that right? Should she have turned down the opportunity so the first woman in the record books wouldn't have an asterisk by her name because of her replacement status?

Progress means that women get to make complicated choices, just like the other replacement officials whose résumés are not as rock-solid as the ones who will be watching the games on television.

Given the money the league makes, and the fact that officials are the first line of defense against injury, the NFL should come to an agreement with the professionals it has previously determined to be the best. In light of this, it is hard to hold a tailgate celebration for the first woman to work an NFL game as an official.

Yet a woman has as much right to cross a picket line as a man. She has as much of a right to make mistakes in a role for which she might be a little too green.