Over the last 16 years, 42-year-old Shannon Eastin has moved her way up the ranks to the significant title of crew chief in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is an impressive and groundbreaking feat for any woman. Given the inevitable amount of opposition Eastin has had to overcome along the way, one assumes that she's mentally ready for her next challenge -- to represent the NFL as one of its replacement officials, and the first female official in the league. From a technical standpoint, the move up from the MEAC will be daunting, but Eastin understands the importance of the step she's taking. In a Tuesday conference call with the national media, she sounded as ready as she could possibly be.
''I believe I am ready,'' she said. ''I'm a realistic person and I know what is realistic for me. I am not going to play football. I feel it is realistic for me to officiate. I make myself ready for any opportunity that comes my way. I will come in with my eyes wide open.''
The NFL and the NFL Referees Association are currently locked in a battle over a new collective bargaining agreement, and the league's officials are locked out as a result. There will be replacement officials in the meantime for the first time since 2001, when a labor battle stretched into the first week of the NFL season. Eastin will be a line judge for Thursday's preseason game between the Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers. The game, which will be nationally televised, will be an interesting forum for all of the replacement officials, and will certainly prompt discussion regarding the value and expertise of the officials who are currently stumping for more pay and a better deal going forward.
Of course, adding to the pressure on Eastin is that she's what some would call a "scab," and those who have worked in place of striking and locked-out officials in football and other sports generally have an impossible re-entry into their sports at that level when labor agreements are made.
Adding to the complexity of the story is the fact that Eastin may not be the most qualified female official to take this step -- Sarah Thomas was the first woman to work a Division I game ( which she did in 2007) and the first to officiate in a bowl game -- she was a line judge at the 2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio. But Thomas, like many other officials higher in the pipeline for legitimate NFL jobs, was asked to stand in support of the NFLRA.
''Hopefully there is some understanding on their part I have got to do what's in the best interest of myself,'' Eastin said, ''just as they have to do what is in their best interest.''
Easier said than done, but her primary focus now will be to adjust to the game speed of the NFL. It's one thing to officiate games between Coastal Carolina and Savannah State, and quite another to keep up with the best in the sport at the highest level. It's a jump most officials aren't allowed to make, but Eastin wasn't about to turn down the opportunity. She has been on the field for preseason practices in Arizona and Seattle, but she understands that what she's seen so far is not real game speed.
''There's been a lot of talk that the NFL is wanting to bring in a female and, quite frankly, this could be the opportunity,'' she said. ''I felt it is something I needed to do, make that step and see what comes from there. I believe it is important when you step on the field to have a presence and a professionalism to know what you are doing.''
One current NFL player who does not oppose the notion is Green Bay Packers defensive back Charles Woodson. The future Hall of Famer told the Associated Press that it's about time for this barrier to be broken.
''I'm sure women have probably tried at some point along the way leading up to this point, so I would assume it's somebody qualified out there that we won't have to jump over for making bad calls," Woodson said. "We look forward to it. That's just the way things are and the way I think it should be. So hats off to her and whoever decided to make it happen.
''It may take some people by surprise, but I think once the game starts flowing, the only way you're going to notice her is if she makes a bad call. She's got to get it like everybody else. I don't think we'll really worry about it too much once the game begins.''
Of course, as a 15-year NFL veteran, Woodson has been around long enough to see a tapestry of horrid officiating that spans from Phil Luckett to Jeff Triplette. He may be thinking that there's no way Eastin -- or any other qualified woman -- could do any worse, and would probably be far better than the NFL's most mistake-prone refs. Eastin intends to do everything possible to further that notion; she's used to the high expectations that come when you're a trendsetter in any industry.
''I think knowing I am a female in a man's world, I always put more pressure on myself," she said. "I know what I signed up for, and that what I do is magnified.''