Luck, Preparation=Opportunity for Eastin, NFL Referees and Women

Luck, Preparation=Opportunity for Eastin, NFL Referees and Women
Shannon Eastin, former poker referee, judo expert, and now NFL Replacement Referee. On NFL Opening Day 2012, she mediated a pushing and shoving fight between the Detroit Lions and the St. Louis Rams on Ford Field.

Luck + Preparation=Opportunity

How many times have we heard that equation in the business world?  Turns out that more often than not, it's true.

Such was the case for 42-year old Shannon Eastin, who wanted to be a football player when she grew up. When she found out that door wasn't opened to her, she became a judo expert.

And yet, Eastin got a golden opportunity anyway to make history...twice... in the NFL. And she might make history another time, if all goes her way again. And for once, opportunity didn't happen because she smashed glass ceilings or  pounded on locked doors.

It happened because it was  necessary. And Eastin was there, at the right time, with the right kind of preparation, to make the right impression on the right people. Namely, NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell and the NFL Referees Association, who were hiring replacements for the striking referees.

Eastin appears to have been working towards this moment for most of her life. She owns SE Sports Officiating, which trains officials in football and basketball, and has already had 16 years as a referee in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - college football's second-highest level.

As a child, she was a multiple national judo champion. She started officiating high school games before moving up to colleges.

In the NFL preseason, as the Referees Association declared a strike, Easin was chosen to ref the Green Bay Packers-San Diego Chargers game. From what I heard afterward, Easin made absolutely no news whatsoever, save that Eastin was a woman who made her debut as the first woman referee.

No news, in this case, was very good indeed.

That said, it was the preseason. I wanted to see if the NFL would continue to use Eastin during the regular season before I said much about it. That would tell me if they were serious about her immediate future as a replacement ref. Someone could always argue "Well, lookit, it was preseason and they were desperate. And the games didn't matter."

But for the regular season, games count. This is the permanent record, whether a referee is a replacement or otherwise. And unless widespread collusion takes place, these records will be used to determine an NFL player's place in history.

Sure enough, her run-through during the preseason was successful enough for Eastin to be hired by the NFL for the regular season. At least as a replacement rep.

It's the first time that replacements have officiated games in 11 years. She was chosen as a line judge for the St. Louis Rams-Detroit Lions game at Ford Field on Sunday afternoon.

All media outlets reported that Eastin "seemed to do her job."  I do believe that's a compliment in the NFL. And all that judo training earlier in life may have helped as she served as a mediator for the neck-and neck Rams and Lions, acting like the animals their teams represent...in a Ram on Lion pushing and shoving match after the game.

How'd she play to the Old Guard at stately Ford Field?

"It's a great milestone,'' Detroit coach Jim Schwartz told Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the Associated Press, and other media reporters  after his team beat St. Louis 27-23. "But we didn't think about it all during the game.''

According to the Detroit Free Press,  Ben Graham, a tough, long-kicking type in his playing days for Geelong, an Aussie Rules Football Team which used female referees in Australia,  said he looked forward to more women like Eastin getting involved in officiating in the NFL.

"Eastin came up through the ranks and is a great example of young women who want to be involved," Graham said, "And I'm sure there are young women out there who want to get involved in coaching."

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio will display the hat and whistle she used during that preseason game.

And was it just a "show," according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He told the media gathered at Eastin's preseason game that she wouldn't be the only one.  "And there are more coming, by the way," he told the Associated Press." We've been working along this path to try to properly train and prepare a female official, and now we have the opportunity.''

According to ESPN, the NFL declined to make Eastin available for interviews during the week leading up to the game and didn't allow media to have access to her following the Rams-Lions game, but did set up a conference call with her in August.

"I hope to show it really doesn't matter if you are male or female,'' Eastin told the Associated Press last month.

Eastin walked onto the Ford Field turf about 50 minutes before kickoff Sunday, chatted briefly with a police officer and shook hands with Lions linebackers coach Matt Burke. She then went largely unnoticed as she paced the home team's sideline during pregame warm-ups.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote believes it is good for the game to have female officials, even though he worries about her safety working alongside some of the world's biggest, strongest and fastest athletes.

"Women are more honest and fair than men and they know how to catch a man cheating,'' Foote told the Associated Press. "I hope she's just a line judge. Don't want her to get hurt.''

Eastin, who is originally from Worcester, Mass., was a multiple national judo champion as a child and started officiating high school games before moving up to colleges. She owns a company called SE Sports Officiating, which trains officials in football and basketball.

"I'll be working even harder, to show I am capable and I am where I should be,'' Eastin has said.

She is joining a small group of women to break into officiating ranks. As ESPN and the Associated Press pointed out,  Violet Palmer, one of Eastin's inspirations, started officiating NBA games in 1997 and is still in the league. Bernice Gera became the first woman to work in baseball's minor leagues in 1972 as an umpire in a New York-Penn League game. Pam Postema umpired major league spring training games in 1989 and Triple-A baseball for six seasons.

What's my dream? When the NFL Referees Association settles its differences with the NFL, they'll hire Eastin as a permanent referee. And a whole lot more like her.

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