Why Is It So Hard to Find an Umpire Uniform for Women?

ALASTAIR GRANT / AP

Women are starting to break into a male-dominated field, but the attire isn’t quite catching up.

About 20 years ago, an attorney named Kitty Grubb saw an advertisement in her local paper that said the basketball referees’ association in Pinellas County, Florida, was looking for officials. Grubb, 65 years old, had first hoped to become a referee in 1977, having played basketball in high school and college. By the time she saw the advertisement, she had a successful career as a lawyer and extra time on her hands.

Grubb’s officiating career would eventually span about two decades and three sports: basketball, rowing, and football. Early on, she began reading the Florida High School Athletic Association Officials Guidebook. On page two, one guideline reads: “Officials shall … dress neatly and appropriately.”

There was one problem with that: The FHSAA’s official supplier, Gerry Davis Sports, didn’t provide much clothing in women’s sizes. Grubb tried to have her referee clothing tailored to fit, but it can cost a lot of money to try to adjust men’s clothing to fit a woman’s body, and even with tailoring, she told me, her clothes looked “less than ideal.”

This went on until last year, when Grubb—who is now a scoreboard and clock operator for football games—decided to complain. She had made a name for herself as a top arbitration and mediation attorney in Alabama and Tennessee, taking on high-profile gender-discrimination cases. Now, she began to see the uniform issue as another example of gender discrimination. Grubb emailed the FHSAA in June 2017 to complain: “Your female officials, myself included, grow weary of looking baggy, saggy in ill-fitting men’s apparel.”

Jeremy Hernandez, the assistant director of officials for the FHSAA, told me the association “will be doing our best to work with the vendors moving forward to ensure our official’s uniform concerns are being heard.” When Hernandez first received Grubb’s email, he said he would look into the matter. But when Hernandez looked around to see if he could find other vendors who had more options for women—and for football officials, specifically—he found that they didn’t exist.

The lack of appropriate clothing for female sports officials is a widespread problem. When Sarah Thomas, the first female NFL referee, was hired in 2015, the league had to figure out what uniform she would wear, since they only made them in men’s sizes. And not having appropriate uniforms hinders female officials in significant ways. Having pants that fit properly can help add height, which matters when a 5’6 female official is trying to establish on-field authority with a 6’2 male player. And if a woman doesn’t look as polished as the men on her officiating team, she can immediately appear out of place—a perception women are already trying to shake. “It’s hard enough being a female and walking out on that ball field and giving everybody the impression you belong there,” Ila Valcarcel, a baseball umpire, told me. “They don’t know you, so your impression is what they get to see and if what they see is equipment and clothing that don’t fit, you already have one strike against you.”

Valcarcel, who has umpired Major League Baseball spring-training games and now works as an umpire supervisor for Perfect Game USA, an organization that promotes baseball, found that the chest plates and shin guards meant to fit men tended to leave gaps where balls could hit her. She began teaching women how to take apart and mold their chest plates, which are built for flatter, wider, male chests, so that they “don’t look like Ninja Turtles.” She heats up shin guards with a heat gun and remolds them to fit the women’s legs.*

In the male-dominated field of professional baseball umpiring, there are few mentors who can help women dress: Only eight women have ever umpired in the minor leagues, and there has never been a woman umpire at the major-league level. “For us, that’s half the battle right away, just presenting as polished and professional,” said Perry Barber, who has been an umpire for 38 years.

Sports officiating isn’t the only field that has failed to consider women’s bodies when making uniforms. Some women who play sports themselves find it difficult to find the right equipment. While there are shoulder pads made explicitly for women who play tackle football, some smaller players have trouble finding pads that both fit and are constructed to withstand adult impact; junior-sized shoulder pads may fit adult women well, but they aren’t built to take the kind of hits dished out in an adult league like the Women’s Football Alliance.

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