When it comes to professional men’s sports, you’ll see a lot of female fans in the stands, but not many of them on the field making the calls. Why, exactly? Tennis superstar Billie Jean King said it best – when it comes to female officials, King said, “they don’t trust the women; they just don’t.” For the purposes of this list, when we say "female authorities," we mean either a female coach or referee in a professional sport, as they have authority on the players playing the game, although it's in two different ways.
In order to be a good referee or coach, there are a few characteristics an individual must have. They need to know the rules of the game inside and out so that they can spot opportunities or see when players are bending the rules. They also need to have a thick skin – whether you’re a coach or a referee, there’s always going to be someone who is upset at a decision you’ve made, or upset that their beloved team didn’t win and chooses to blame it on you. Coaches need to know how to bring out the best in their players and referees need to keep things impartial and decide whether any player is breaking the rules, regardless of if they’re a superstar or a rookie.
You’ll notice one thing about the necessary characteristics – they’re not tied to gender whatsoever. A woman can perform the tasks just as effectively as a man, yet in the world of professional sports, female coaches and referees are vastly, vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts.
Yes, things are starting to improve a little bit, and women are slowly entering the ranks, but it’s definitely going to be several years – decades, perhaps – before the referee or coach of a team has as good a chance of being female as male.
It’s still an uphill battle for female coaches and referees, but the women on this list have been fighting for their spots in the professional sports world and inspiring any female sports fans who have thought of becoming involved as coaches or referees rather than female athletes.
Here are 15 female coaches and referees who are taking charge and taking names.
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15 Kheira Sidi Yakoub
When you think of women and sports, boxing probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind. It’s generally a sport thought to be dominated by masculine aggression and testosterone. However, women have been making huge strides in the world of boxing, increasingly able to compete at higher and higher levels. Algerian referee Kheira Sidi Yakoub is part of this female boxing revolution. In 2012, Yakoub became the only female referee for the World Series of Boxing and her skills even earned her a spot officiating boxing matches at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
14 Bibiana Steinhaus
Bibiana Steinhaus was the first female referee to make it into the German men’s football world (soccer, to North American audiences) and is sometimes referred to as the “First Lady” of football. When she’s not on the fields, she keeps in shape and maintains order by working as a police woman. She got her start officiating women’s games, working her way up to the prestigious FIFA Women’s World Cups, before moving over into the men’s world. How does she feel about being a woman in men’s sports? “I just want to do a good job,” Steinhaus said in an interview with German newspaper the Spiegel.
13 Heather McDaniel
* There are no photos of Heatcher McDaniel officiating, so the photo above is of Erin Blair who officiates in semi-pro leagues.
In the world of professional sports, hockey has perhaps been the most stagnant when it comes to letting female officials to penetrate its ranks. Case in point – Heather McDaniel made news when, in 1995, she became the first woman to officiate a men’s professional hockey game. The start of a new stream of females calling the shots in hockey? Not so much. She got pregnant in 1999, stopped officiating in the pro leagues, and no female hockey buffs have stepped up to take her place since then. While there are several hundred registered female hockey officials in North America, most don’t work in leagues above the juniors – they’re definitely not on NHL ice. McDaniel, who gave up the world of athletics for academia (she’s pursuing a Ph.D in archaeology), has said that she doesn’t doubt women can do as good a job as men, and could be qualified to ref NHL games; many just aren’t willing to give up on other aspirations, or go off into officiating women’s games early on and don’t ever think of breaking into the men’s world.
12 Kari Seitz
Referee Kari Seitz has risen to the top of the female soccer league, officiating several FIFA Women’s World Cup games and Olympic women’s tournaments. However, she wanted to become well rounded as a referee, and accordingly worked as a referee and assistant referee in Major League Soccer as well. Though she doesn’t ref in the men’s majors anymore, she does sometimes work men’s college and amateur games. Seitz has been outspoken about the necessity for female officials to experience both worlds, as she stated “it’s a craft. If you just did women’s or just men’s football, you wouldn’t be the best referee you can be.” Seitz has other passions and works full-time as a general manager in the world of advertising. As soccer officials are required to retire at a relatively young age (45) because of the physical demands of officiating the sport, Seitz’ black and white uniform days are coming to an end. However, she’s definitely inspired many female soccer fans.
11 Kim Winslow
When you think of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, you think of muscled men, sweaty, bloody, pumped up with testosterone and ready to rip their opponent to shreds. Kim Winslow, a former air traffic controller, waltzed right into the ring in 2009, not as a fighter, but as the first female referee in the popular mixed martial arts competition. Winslow made a lot of headlines after officiating a high-stakes match between Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano where she ended it when Tate was getting too beat up; many said Winslow ended the fight too soon and that she wasn’t doing her job well. Winslow fired back a perfect response – “I tell all my fighters, I tell them that I need you to show me you are capable of intelligently defending yourself…If you hear me telling you I need to see you defending yourself, that’s what I need to see. There’s no misunderstanding that.” That’s just one of the countless complaints that have been placed against Winslow, by fans, MMA writers and more, yet Winslow continues to re-earn her ref’s license every single year. Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said it best: “If you run an official’s name through Google and you don’t find criticism, they haven’t done a major fight card.”
10 Nancy Lieberman
With a nickname like “Lady Magic,” it’s safe to say that Nancy Lieberman knows her basketball, inside and out. She has held basically every position and role possible in the world of basketball, from player to coach. She’s been a player, coach and general manager in the WNBA, a sports broadcaster for several major networks including ABC, NBC, and ESPN, and in 2009 became the coach of the Texas Legends, a team in the NBA Development League and affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. Her position in Dallas made her the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team, a commendable achievement; she’s since moved to the position of assistant general manager for the Texas Legends.
9 Amelie Mauresmo
Female coaches are far more common in tennis than in any other sport, but when a superstar player like Andy Murray adds a female coach to his roster, everyone still takes note. Murray added former women’s world number one Amelie Mauresmo to his team, hoping that she would help him improve his already impressive game. Mauresmo has commented about the progress the appointment demonstrates for women, saying it is a step forward for female coaches, but (as any good coach would), added that her main concern is merely making sure Murray is serving up his A-game. Murray has been nothing but overwhelmingly positive about Mauresmo and female coaches in general.
8 Susie Meyers
In golf, the coaches aren’t exactly shouting on the sidelines like they are in team sports, so you may not even recognize Susie Meyers or the ties she has to several successful golfers. Her track record, however, speaks for itself. Meyers works as a PGA professional instructor in Arizona, and has been the coach of Michael Thompson, a Honda Classic Champion, for over a decade. Meyers has also coached golfer Derek Ernst. She’s definitely has the skill set to back up her coaching, but according to Meyers, she coaches players on both their swing and their attitude. “I do work on the golf swing, but it’s more about how I deliver the information. My goal is to allow the player to trust in his abilities,” Meyers says.
7 Sian Massey-Ellis
Massey-Ellis started her referee career path as most women do – in the female leagues, officiating the FA Women’s Premier League Cup final and more. She turned professional in March of 2010, and became part of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, which is the pool of referees that they choose from for men’s Premier League matches. Sure enough, in December of that year she was an assistant referee in her first Premier League match. Many females who officiate men’s sports eventually get tangled up in some kind of sexism controversy, and Massey-Ellis is no different – a few Sky Sports staff members made comments about Massey-Ellis while she was officiating a Premier League game, and three staff members were fired, resigned and were suspended.
6 Nicole Kirnan
While Nicole Kirnan didn’t make it into the elite ranks of the NHL, she did manage to get a spot behind the bench in the Federal Hockey League. Kirnan is the owner and president of the 1000 Islands Privateers, but she’s putting on the cap of head coach as well. When the former coach un-retired and strapped his skates back on and the assistant coach quit sports altogether for a job in the oil sands, Kirnan stepped up and stepped behind the bench. Granted, the FHL is several steps down from the NHL, and she’s facing far, far less scrutiny than if she had grabbed the reigns of a huge NHL super team. However, it’s still a big step for women in the world of hockey.
5 Amy Fearn
Soccer referee Amy Fearn has been making history her entire officiating career – she first broke records as the first woman to take charge of a match in the Football League, and then became the first woman to take charge of a first-round FA Cup tie. When she was starting out nearly a decade ago, she got a lot of public attention after Luton Town manager Mike Newell made a sexist comment about the female referee, saying “she shouldn’t be here… this isn’t parks football so what are women doing here?” Fearn continues to prove exactly why she’s on the field – because she’s a qualified and competent referee.
4 Sarah Thomas
With its tackles and padding, football is often thought to be a very masculine sport, yet increasing numbers of women are becoming interested in NFL and NCAA football. Sarah Thomas worked her way up from varsity high school football to the big leagues – the NFL itself. She spent several years officiating college football, breaking several records while she did so, as she was the first woman to officiate a major college football game, a bowl game, and to officiate in a Big Ten stadium. After five years, the NFL can start to look at Division I college football officials and consider bringing them up to the big leagues. They examined Thomas’ officiating and she evidently made the cut, as she has become the first full-time female official in NFL history.
3 Violet Palmer
While many women have been breaking ground in professional sports for the past several years, Violet Palmer has been doing it since those women were in diapers. Palmer has spent about two decades as a referee in the NBA, and is the league’s only female referee now (back when she first came onto the scene in 1997, she shared the distinction with Dee Kantner). Palmer has seen it all and responded to it all with grace and a little bit of humor, and is constantly rooting on the next generation of women who are following in her footsteps.
2 Shannon Eastin
While referee Sarah Thomas holds the record of being the NFL’s first full-time female official, Shannon Eastin holds the record of being the first female on-field official. She officiated for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and had an illustrious athletic career herself as a professional judo athlete. She was called into the big leagues of the NFL due to a lockout of regular NFL officials. While they were struggling to come to a consensus on a collective bargaining agreement, Eastin swooped in and made history. What advice does she have for women? “Prepare yourself to be the very best you can be. You will never be able to control every situation. Focus on the things that you can: things like staying in shape, knowing the rules and being in the right position on the field.”
1 Becky Hammon
Becky Hammon had a long and impressive career as a basketball player, playing both in the WNBA and in international leagues. However, when she retired from her time on the court, she didn’t go very far – she took an incredible step forward for females in the sports world by becoming the first full-time assistant coach in not just the NBA, but any of the four major professional sports in North America (MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL). Hammon is working for the San Antonio Spurs and has received an enormous amount of media attention since taking on her new position. So far, everyone has been impressed with how she’s been doing, proving that her basketball IQ can rival any man’s.
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