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A leg injury to referee Tony Bates in the match between Nottingham Forest and Cardiff Coventry City last night inadvertently led to history being made for football: the most experienced assistant referee in the team takes over, and that happened to be Amy Fearn.
The 31 year-old became the first female to referee at a Football League game in the 122 year history of the world’s oldest league competition.
Interviewed on the Football League’s website, she quite rightly put the moment into proper perspective:
Last night will of course raise the profile of women in football; it can only be a good thing for encouraging more women into the game. There is a great relationship between male and female officials – when the referee came off he told me to stay calm and do my best and it would be great to see more women come into the game.
I understand there was a big reaction from the crowd but I don’t remember it at the time. I’m glad there was nothing controversial in that twenty minutes – football should be about the players not the officials.
It was in 1997 that the NBA became the first major American sport to feature a female referee, not without controversy.
The firing by the NBA of female referee Dee Kantner in 2002 was attributed by some to gender-bias in how referees are expected to behave, as Russell MenyHart wrote at the time:
Underestimation of Kantner’s ability would not necessarily be malicious. Powerful male players are used to male referees being equally tenacious. Even coaches who honestly try to make gender-blind evaluations are susceptible to unintentional bias due to their preconceived notions of what makes a good referee. Kantner was undoubtedly subject to increased scrutiny as a woman, and the NBA seems to have made no effort to consider whether its existing standards of “good” refereeing were gender-based.
The deeper problem is that a significant change such as this takes cultural adjustment, not just a change in cast. Kantner’s firing (and the fact that no other female referees have been hired in the past five years) represents the ignorance of the dominant party, a pattern seen over and over again in many sectors of American society.
Some years on, and many other sports have now crossed that barrier, and the controversy seems to have died down (though it should be said basketball lends itself to more focus on the referees). Major college football saw its first female referee last autumn, Sarah Thomas, as the New York Times reported:
Thomas, 35, is major college football’s only female referee. She has grown accustomed to startling players and coaches on Saturdays but said it did not occur as often as one might think.
“Most of the time they are so focused on what they are doing, they don’t notice me,” Thomas said. “And that is what every other official strives for. Our best games are the ones that no one knows we’re there.”
Female referees at the assistant level in England have not always had an easy time. In 1999, then Coventry boss Gordan Strachan launched a blistering attack on Wendy Toms, saying “We are getting PC decisions about promoting ladies.” In 2006, then Luton manager Mike Newell went further when discussing assistant Amy Rayner:
She should not be here,’ Newell said. ‘I know that sounds sexist, but I am sexist, so I am not going to be anything other than that. We have a problem in this country with political correctness, and bringing women into the game is not the way to improve refereeing and officialdom.’
He added: ‘It is absolutely beyond belief. When do we reach a stage when all officials are women, then we are in trouble. It is bad enough with the incapable referees and linesmen we have, but if you start bringing in women, you have big problems. It is tokenism, for the politically correct idiots.’
With these attitudes no doubt still around today, the challenges facing the likes of Amy Fearn remain considerable as they attempt to forge their own path to the Premier League.