She got the job and runs with it

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - KEVIN BAX­TER ON SOCCER kevin.bax­ter@la­ Twit­ter: @kbax­ter11

One of the great­est com­pli­ments Christina Unkel re­ceived in her long ca­reer as a soccer of­fi­cial came the time a player ad­dressed her as “sir.”

“It’s weird thing,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s great. I’m glad you for­got that I’m a girl. That’s help­ful. That means you’re not fo­cused on that.’ ”

Unkel has stood out most of her adult life, pur­su­ing a dou­ble ma­jor in col­lege, earn­ing a law de­gree and learn­ing a se­cond lan­guage.

But on the soccer field, she has spent much of her time try­ing to blend in, mainly work­ing games in the Na­tional Women’s Soccer League and nu­mer­ous age-group tour­na­ments. Be­cause while women can run ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions, sit on the Supreme Court and even run for pres­i­dent, they still haven’t been able to find reg­u­lar work as a cen­ter ref­eree at the top level of soccer in the U.S. and Canada.

Peter Wal­ton is de­ter­mined to change that. A for­mer English Premier League ref­eree and now gen­eral man­ager of the Pro­fes­sional Ref­eree Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which over­sees the of­fi­ci­at­ing for pro­fes­sional soccer in the U.S. and Canada, Wal­ton is mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to in­crease op­por­tu­ni­ties for fe­male ref­er­ees.

“The ul­ti­mate goal,” he said, “is to have a fe­male of­fi­ci­at­ing as the cen­ter ref­eree in Ma­jor League Soccer.”

Some of that stems from a de­sire to strike a blow for gen­der equal­ity. But Wal­ton in­sists what he’s re­ally try­ing to do is find the best ref­er­ees, ir­re­spec­tive of gen­der.

“The mes­sage I’ve given — quite clearly and strongly at times — is that I’m in­ter­ested in abil­ity. I’m not in­ter­ested in gen­der,” he said. “If the abil­ity’s there, give them the op­por­tu­nity and give them the chance to shine.

“It’s be­gin­ning to bear fruit. Over the next two to three years you’ll see more and more fe­male of­fi­cials ac­tively en­gaged in pro­fes­sional re­feree­ing. That’s the way it should be.”

And that’s the way it once was, with San­dra Hunt, Nancy Lay and Kari Seitz all work­ing as cen­ter ref­er­ees for a hand­ful of games in the nascent days of MLS nearly 20 years ago. Hunt did her last match in 2000, though. And while both the NFL and NBA have used fe­male of­fi­cials since then, no woman has run a top-tier men’s soccer game in the U.S. or Canada in 17 years.

MLS does have two fe­male as­sis­tant ref­er­ees — Fel­isha Mariscal, who be­gan work­ing MLS games in 2014, and Kathryn Nes­bitt, who made her MLS de­but in 2015. But their main re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­volve off­side and bound­ary calls and mon­i­tor­ing bench be­hav­ior while cen­ter ref­er­ees con­trol the flow of the match by man­ag­ing the play­ers, de­ter­min­ing fouls and is­su­ing red and yel­low cards.

“The im­por­tance of hav­ing a fe­male of­fi­cial is just the im­por­tance of rec­og­niz­ing, like any­thing in life, there should be di­verse in­di­vid­u­als re­feree­ing these matches,” said Unkel, whose hus­band, Ted, is an MLS ref­eree.

“As a ref­eree you are the cap­tain of that ship,” added Unkel, a Sara­sota, Fla., at­tor­ney who has sat out most of the last two years after giv­ing birth. “You’re re­spon­si­ble for set­ting the tone. If you’re the head ref­eree, you’re lead­ing it.”

If Wal­ton is try­ing to re­open a path to the cen­ter in MLS, he’s also try­ing to catch up to some of Europe’s top leagues. Last month the Ger­man Bun­desliga added Bib­iana Stein­haus, a well-re­spected of­fi­cial with a deep in­ter­na­tional re­sume, to its list of ref­er­ees for 2017-18. Sian Massey-El­lis be­gan work­ing as an as­sis­tant ref­eree in the Premier League in 2010.

At the be­gin­ning of her ca­reer, Massey-El­lis was the tar­get of sex­ist crit­i­cism — in­clud­ing com­ments that cost two Sky Sports TV com­men­ta­tors their jobs. But Nes­bitt said the only re­ac­tion she’s no­ticed has been sur­prise.

“In work­ing the men’s game I have seen some play­ers and coaches be star­tled, at first, by a woman on their match,” said Nes­bitt, who has done games in the NWSL as well as in the USL and NASL, the se­cond-tier men’s leagues in the U.S. and Canada. “But they are gen­er­ally ac­cept­ing of it. The over­whelm­ing re­cep­tion has been pos­i­tive, and I think a lot of that comes from fe­male of­fi­cials show­ing well in the men’s game.”

Nes­bitt, a post­doc­toral re­search fel­low at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, has a doc­tor­ate in chem­istry, but men­tal fit­ness is just one re­quire­ment for a top-level soccer ref­eree. Phys­i­cal fit­ness is also im­por­tant and fe­male can­di­dates have to meet the same stan­dards as men on a se­ries of chal­leng­ing tests that in­clude re­peated sprints over dis­tances of 40 to 150 me­ters.

“Women can and do meet these stan­dards,” Nes­bitt said.

So, Wal­ton con­cluded, if women have the abil­ity, the de­sire and the phys­i­cal and men­tal ca­pa­bil­i­ties to be cen­ter ref­er­ees, the only thing miss­ing is the op­por­tu­nity. He’s de­ter­mined to pro­vide that, re­cruit­ing fe­male of­fi­cials at the grass­roots lev­els, giv­ing them ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­po­sure with high-pro­file as­sign­ments such as the MLS com­bine, then help­ing men­tor their de­vel­op­ment.

He has been re­warded with mea­sur­able progress. Be­fore Wal­ton joined the Pro­fes­sional Ref­eree Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2012, fe­male of­fi­cials got be­tween 5% and 10% of the cen­ter-ref­eree as­sign­ments in the USL and NASL. Now the per­cent­age of fe­male ref­er­ees el­i­gi­ble to work pro­fes­sional games ranges as high as 20%.

Yet de­spite his de­sire for in­clu­sion, Wal­ton in­sists this is not an af­fir­ma­tive­ac­tion pro­gram. When he re­ceives in­for­ma­tion on an of­fi­cial or when the ref­eree or­ga­ni­za­tion is choos­ing ref­er­ees to work par­tic­u­lar games, he in­sists the pa­per­work in­clude noth­ing more than the of­fi­cials’ sur­name.

“Our goal is to make sure that we look at of­fi­cials and not the gen­der as­pect,” he said. “And if that per­son in front of me, in front of my devel­op­men­tal peo­ple, is good enough, then they’ll get the op­por­tu­nity.”

Julio Cortez As­so­ci­ated Press

ONE OF TWO fe­male of­fi­cials in Ma­jor League Soccer, Kathryn Nes­bitt also has a doc­tor­ate in chem­istry.

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