O'Leary: A year after historic game, women refs look to the future
No matter how big the dream and no matter how many times you may have tried to speak it into existence or how much you visualized it, there’s always a facet of it that you can’t ever fully be ready for.
On May 31 last year, Georgina Paull and Emily Clarke set foot on the field with their fellow officials for a preseason game in Calgary. The Stampeders were hosting the Riders. It was Preseason Week 2, Game 4 of nine to be played before the 2019 season kicked off.
“It was a preseason game so everyone was a little less…” Paull said over the phone from Montreal this past week, looking back on the game. She trailed off and tried to find the right words.
“Angry about everything?,” she laughed. “Everyone was super nice. They were great.”
Paull and Clarke were the first-ever women to work as officials in a CFL game.
They’re both working their way up the officiating ladder. Paull works U Sports and CEGEP games in Montreal, while Clarke works U Sports and CJFL games out of Calgary. They each work around 40 games a year. Last year, they were invited by the CFL to the annual referee’s clinic that’s held in May. From there, they were assigned two quarters of the preseason game.
Clarke worked the first and third quarter and switched out with another rookie official for the second and fourth. The veteran ref scheduled to split time with Paull stepped back and let her work the entire game.
Days before the game, they were both focused on the task at hand. They wanted to do a good job on the field so that they could be invited back for future camps and hopefully earn more games to work in the future. It’s hard to do your job well if you let the fact that you’re about to make history creep into the front of your mind.
Still, that element of the night was inescapable.
“I think it caught me off guard a little bit in terms of the optics of it and what came of it,” Clarke said.
“I don’t think (the info on the reffing crew) was released to the media until the day of or maybe the night before, that we would be in the game.
“It was a different experience, for sure, coming out of the tunnel when we went to do our pregame walk with our partners on the sideline and there were cameras that were in front of us taking pictures. Trying not to get distracted by that and focus on the stuff that was going on, it was a little unnerving to begin with. It was pretty quick after that to settle in, right away.”
One moment from the pregame jarred Paull out of her usual focus. It was when a young girl approached her and Clarke, wearing overalls and a Stampeders jersey, looking to get a picture with the two of them. The jersey had a No. 25 on it. It was former Stamps’ defensive back Keon Raymond’s daughter, Gabrielle. Her dad was with her, taking the picture.
“That hadn’t clicked into my mind until this little girl was like, ‘Can we take a picture with you?’ Paull said.
“Then I realized, I guess this is something special. This is the first time for women to break this barrier and break into this very male-dominated situation. It hadn’t clicked until then. Then it was like, ‘OK, this is something. This is something cool.’”
“The impact of seeing that afterward, that stuck with me,” Clarke said.
While Clarke and Paull are the first two women to work a CFL game, female officials in the world of professional male sports aren’t a brand new concept. The NBA hired a pair of female officials in 1997 and has four women on its current referee roster. The NFL hired Sarah Thomas in 2015, making her its first-ever female official. She works as a down judge and Terri Valenti has worked as a replay official since 2017.
As they posed for that picture with Raymond’s daughter, the significance of their presence on a field that previously never had women on it in that capacity hit home.
“I’m really hoping that it helps little girls (realize), even if it is a male-dominated situation, if I want to do it, I can do it. If I work hard enough…if they can do it, why can’t I do it?” Paull said.
If it all works out for them the way they want it to — long careers are born from this opportunity and they get to work Grey Cup games — they could have a landscape-changing effect on football officiating in Canada. A generation of young female fans could grow up seeing faces like theirs on the sidelines at games.
“It’s growing at a pace right now that I don’t think people are aware of,” Clarke said of women getting involved in officiating.
“On Facebook, there’s a Canadian football officials association page and just within this last year, there’s been more and more things posted,” she said.
“There was a CJFL game out in BC…posting about a record number of female officials involved in that, right from two on-field officials and a support person on the sideline and they had someone timing up in the booth.
“I think in Winnipeg they had a peewee or bantam game that had an all-female crew that did that. It’s growing and I think it’s going to continue to grow.”
Paull sees the impact that her and Clarke could have and felt a bit of it last year at the game in Calgary. At home in Montreal, she works to get more women involved in officiating.
“I’m trying to recruit women to try to come to clinics and see how they like it,” she said.
“In five to 10 years I think it’d be really nice (to get more women involved). I think Quebec only has four women right now out of like, 300 people. We have a whole gender that hasn’t really been tapped into yet. It’d be really nice if we could try and up those numbers.”
Their invite to this year’s camp suggests their hard work is paying off. Reffing assignments for the season aren’t handed out until after the refs’ clinic in May and as any of the current CFL officials can attest, there is no set, A to B journey for those that dream of one day working a Grey Cup game.
“Both Emily and Georgina performed very well during their first CFL game and we look forward to seeing their continued development in 2020,” Darren Hackwood, the CFL’s associate VP of officiating said.
“Even if the CFL doesn’t work out for whatever reason,” Paull said, “I just hope that getting the publicity out there has helped more women at least want to try to get into it. That’s my goal.”