Monday, March 30, 2009

making the call

We are reaching a confluence of sorts, as the tail end of Women's History month meets with the start of the Major League baseball season. To that end, I wanted to take a moment to write about a topic not often covered in the blogosphere, and that is the place of female officials in major professional sports.

Today, there is a grand total of one woman who calls games at the highest level of her sport. That woman is Violet Palmer (pictured, below), who is a referee for both the NBA and the WNBA. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. Around the world, we have female prime ministers, secretaries of state, space shuttle commanders, and even women in major military positions, but women calling pro sports games? Of course not.

I'm not even going to get into the issue of parity for female athletes. That's a whole other ballgame, the discussion of which I'll save for another day (although I did notice, thanks to a tip from @TuckerCenter, that mascots got more play than women in this year's NCAA hoops SI cover...just sayin'). No, at issue in this post is why women officials have been categorically denied entry into the apex of professional sports in America. It is entirely flabbergasting to understand why we as a society hold someone like Jackie Robinson to almost godlike status, and yet we do nothing to promote the inclusion of other minorities—especially women—in the sports world. Of course, I'm talking mostly about sports in which women don't actually get to play; tennis has quite a few female umpires, as does the WNBA and other smaller market sports in which women get to both play and officiate (although salaries for the women who do participate in these are generally laughable). But even for the NBA, which finally let two women into the highest officiating level (in addition to Palmer, a woman named Dee Kantner saw some time on the sidelines), it's still just two. Ever. Why?

I've come to believe that the main answer is that men simply aren't cool with the idea of women being a part of the men's professional sporting world, no matter how talented a female official might be. I mean, let's face it, a lot of men are just uncomfortable with the idea of women invading their all-boys club. I'm guessing that part of it is that they simply don't want to admit that a woman can do as competent a job in officiating as a man. But more to the point, I think a lot of guys are still in cave-man mode, in that they feel like women shouldn't have access to positions of power that they have traditionally always enjoyed. But wait, what century are we in again?

Getting back to baseball, I wanted to draw your attention to the work of a friend of mine, an umpire who has been officiating in the lower levels of pro ball for quite a few years now. Perry Barber is one of the few women who has not taken no for an answer. She earned her stripes, and has gone on to call minor league games as well as spring training games for various major league teams (that's her in the picture up top). Anyway, as you can read for yourself in this pointed article about the release of minor league umpire Ria Cortesio a couple of years ago, Barber contends that the baseball establishment has been espousing an unwritten rule that a woman can only go so far in the umpiring ranks, despite the grand show that they may put on to suggest that the denial of promotion to female umpires is strictly merit-based. It's frankly pretty sickening to think about the lengths people will go to to deny women a shot at participating in the officiating of our national pastime at the sport's highest level. Guiltiest of all may be the officials themselves, who, in many cases, are loath to give up valuable positions within their ranks to a bunch of broads. Yet why is this form of job discrimination tolerated any more than in any other employment sector in this country?

Thankfully, some organizations, such as the Tucker Center out of the University of Minnesota, are helping to bring such issues of equality in the sports world to light. But for things to really change in the officiating realm, it's going to require that owners and executives of the the major sports leagues actually force officials to let women into their ranks—which isn't going to happen without a lot of noise from the us, the consumers of their highly lucrative products. So if you have the opportunity, go out and make your voice heard. Write letters, get your favorite teams on the phone. To be sure, I'm not suggesting we need to call for 50-50 parity right away; after all, there are relatively few women who even want to become pro officials right now. But women and girls who want to officiate need to see that they have a place in pro sports. Once that happens, I guarantee you that they'll take the ball and run with it, as they well should have the right to do.

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