The NFL's first female official is welcoming her role as a sports pioneer.
Shannon Eastin says she's excited and a bit nervous but not at all intimidated by the challenge of working a pro game. Eastin makes her NFL debut Thursday night as the line judge when the Green Bay Packers play at San Diego in the preseason opener for both teams. A 42-year-old referee in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — college football's second-highest level — Eastin has 16 years of officiating experience.
She is among the replacement officials hired by the league while the regular officials are locked out. Like the rest of her current colleagues, she could easily be back to her regular officiating gig once a new labor deal is struck.
"I want to encourage women: Don't be afraid," Eastin said on a conference call Tuesday. "Pursue and have dreams. This is my dream. With very step I hope to show it really doesn't matter if you are male or female."
Eastin is in a particularly difficult spot for three reasons:
— No woman has officiated an NFL game;
— The Chargers host the Packers on national television;
— She is viewed by some of the NFL's regular officials as a scab.
"Hopefully there is some understanding on their part I have got to do what's in the best interest of myself," Eastin said of the regular officials, "just as they have to do what is in their best interest."
Regardless, she says this was a chance she couldn't pass up.
"I believe I am ready," she said. "I'm a realistic person and I know what is realistic for me. I am not going to play football. I feel it is realistic for me to officiate.
"I make myself ready for any opportunity that comes my way. I will come in with my eyes wide open."
She'll also come in with millions of eyes on her, as well as on the other replacement officials. A crew worked the Hall of Fame game on Sunday with mixed reviews.
"It's probably about time," Green Bay Packers defensive back Charles Woodson said. "I'm sure women have probably tried at some point along the way leading up to this point, so I would assume it's somebody qualified out there that we won't have to jump over for making bad calls. We look forward to it. That's just the way things are and the way I think it should be. So hats off to her and whoever decided to make it happen.
"It may take some people by surprise, but I think once the game starts flowing, the only way you're going to notice her is if she makes a bad call. She's got to get it like everybody else. I don't think we'll really worry about it too much once the game begins."
Beginning Thursday, the replacements will officiate 16 more games. It is the first time in 11 years that replacements have worked games; that standoff lasted one week into the regular season.
Eastin isn't looking ahead as far as September. She recognizes she is auditioning every time she blows the whistle.
"There's been a lot of talk that the NFL is wanting to bring in a female and, quite frankly, this could be the opportunity," she said. "I felt it is something I needed to do, make that step and see what comes from there."
She said she took regular officials' situation into consideration as well as the scrutiny she would receive.
"The pressure?" she said. "I think knowing I am a female in a man's world, I always put more pressure on myself. I know what I signed up for, and that what I do is magnified."
Her biggest challenges will be handling the different rules in the pros and positioning, Eastin said. She has visited some team training camps to prepare and didn't see a huge difference in the speed of the game.
"But they have not been at top speed," she said. "I believe it is important when you step on the field to have a presences and a professionalism to know what you are doing."
Originally from Worcester, Mass., Eastin took up judo as a child and competed at the senior level when she was 11 years old. She retired from the sport as a teenager.
Although "football has always been in my blood," Eastin originally set out to be a basketball coach, and then an official, after she quit judo at age 15.
She asked about working football games while awaiting the start of the basketball season and found her comfort zone.
She worked high school games before moving up to the colleges and eventually to the MEAC, where she is the first woman to be a crew chief. Eastin also trains officials in football and basketball at SE Sports Officiating, a company she owns.
"There are probably not as many women (students) as I'd like," said Eastin, who now lives in Tempe, Ariz.
Eastin mentioned former NFL referees Red Cashion and Jerry Markbreit as significant boosters for her career. And she cited NBA referee Violet Palmer as one of her inspirations.
Palmer began officiating NBA games in 1997 and still is doing it.
Bernice Gera became the first woman to umpire in baseball's minor leagues when she worked a New York-Penn League game in 1972. Pam Postema (1989) umpired major league spring training games. Championed by commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, Postema made it up to Triple-A for six seasons. She was fired a few months after Giamatti's death, filed a sex discrimination suit against baseball and settled out of court 5½ years later.
While Eastin says she has dealt with sexism during her career, she doesn't harp on it. Plus, players, coaches and other officials have been supportive — for the most part.
"I am sure everyone knows there will be some of that along the way," she said, referring to sexism. "I try to stick with people who want me to succeed, not the people who don't want a woman to succeed."
Can she succeed? Eastin insists she has no back-down in her makeup.
"I'll be working even harder," she said, "to show I am capable and I am where I should be."
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