Will the NFL Ever Allow a Female Official?

Richard O'HaganCorrespondent IISeptember 16, 2011

Will we ever see a woman among such a group?
Will we ever see a woman among such a group?Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Cast your eyes slightly upward and you will see a bar listing all of the sports covered by Bleacher Report. Look closer and you will see that just about every sport in the western world—including some that I wouldn't deem a sport—is listed. One of those sports is very different from the others, though.

Which one is it, and why?

Actually, the title of this piece is a dead giveaway, because it is football. Football is different in that alone among the sports listed here, it has no female participants at any sort of professional or semi-professional level. Yes, we've had Lingerie Bowls and Lingerie Leagues, but they are not really designed to persuade someone to take a women's version of the game we all love seriously.

The discussion as to why there is no Women's NFL can wait for another time (for the record, a casual survey of female fans suggested that the answer may lie somewhere between 'women are too scared of getting hurt' and 'only men would be stupid enough to play a game like that') because female participants are now actively being targeted by the NFL—as officials.

This isn't a joke.

The story was broken by Peter King of Sports Illustrated earlier in the week and has been greeted with the same response that greets every suggestion of greater female involvement in the male branch of a sport: bafflement and derision.

Despite this, King is adamant that the NFL could see a female official as early as 2013.

The story is backed up by Carl Johnson, the NFL's Vice President of Officiating, who told ESPN's Jane McManus back in August that the league would look to appoint any woman good enough to do the job.

Does this mean that the arrival of a female NFL official is near, though? It is hard to think that it does.

One of the toughest things that any female official has to overcome is the perception that she must be at least as good as, if not better than, the best male official.

The NFL season is short and intense. Officials have to be prepared to be scrutinized like they have never been before—by the league, by fans and by television cameras and pundits, all of them willing to pounce on every slight mistake.

It is a tough enough environment to walk into as it is, without also having to be a trailblazer for your gender at the same time. In England in January, soccer pundit Andy Gray lost his job partly as a result of sexist comments made about a female official, whilst the host of the show he was appearing on, Richard Keyes, resigned over his role in the incident.

That is precisely the sort of thing that any female official in the NFL is going to have to deal with. It is not excusable, but it is a sadly inevitable consequence of participating in a sport whose idea of female involvement is cheerleading or bartending.

I have no time for the arguments that say that women should not officiate in football matches because they might get hurt. There are male officials out there who are as lightly built as some of the female officials I have seen at lower levels of the game.

What this issue is really going to come down to is one of personality and fortitude.

And the problem is that it is not going to be the NFL's way to simply slip a female onto the field in a low-key way. When this does happen, it is going to be with everything short of a ticker tape parade, which is going to add to the pressure on the woman concerned.

Yet at the same time, the NFL, ever conscious of its public reputation, is hardly going to promote someone just because public opinion is for it, or because it is a hot topic of discussion.

In effect, the more we talk about it, the less likely it is to happen.