An icon among referees: Betty Ellis made history on Mother's Day 40 years ago

It seems that Betty Ellis  tends to work on Mother’s Day. This year, it’s a fire-safety landscaping project at her home in Sonoma County -- although her daughter, Kyle, thinks she can convince her mom to take a brunch break. On Mother’s Day 40 years ago, Ellis' work made sports history.

What Ellis did on Mother’s Day 1981 is why she’s on an ESPN “famous female firsts in sports history” timeline that starts in 1938 with Babe Didrikson Zaharias and includes Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt. It’s why some of her belongings are in the Smithsonian.

Kyle and her four siblings were there when it happened, at the NASL San Jose Earthquakes’ Spartan Stadium, where Ellis became the first woman to join a referee crew for a men’s professional sports league in the USA – and most likely became the first woman to officiate pro men’s soccer anywhere in the world.

“A lot of mixed things were going on in the stands,” says Kyle, who was 19 at the time, watching her 41-year-old mom. “Some people were happy about it, and some yelled things like, ‘get your purse and go home.’  It was a long time ago, but what I remember most is how proud we all were of her.”

When a fan screamed “Go back to the kitchen!” – one of Ellis’ children yelled back, “She’s great in the kitchen, too!”

The NASL announced the hiring of Ellis in April 1981. She debuted as a fourth official, then continued on as an assistant referee back when that was called a linesman. A week after the Mother’s Day debut she ran the line at Portland’s Civic Stadium with Toros Kibritjian in the center. Back in Spartan Stadium – 100 miles south of Ellis’ Santa Rosa home – she had to deal with a superstar named George Best.

“Handsome dude, my goodness,” Ellis says. “He was offside on his first goal and I called it. And San Jose was not happy with me. If you ever went Spartan Stadium, you know how close the fans were to the sideline. The second time, he was slightly offside, but I was right on it. We called it back. I thought the crowd was going to climb over the barriers.

“He was very flamboyant and oh my he was ragging me. In any other instance, a linesman would have raised the flag, called the ref over and asked him to talk to the player about his ungentlemanly conduct. But I didn't want to bring any more attention on me.”

Both coaches told Ellis after the game that her offside calls were correct. Then a reporter asked her about Best’s behavior and how she kept her cool when he was giving her so much trouble.

“I said, 'He’s such a classy looking guy and such a classy player, too bad he doesn’t have class.' And they quoted me in the newspaper! The next game, he was so good to me. He didn't say boo.”

Ellis, who kept refereeing men’s professional soccer in the indoor MISL after the NASL folded following its 1984 season, started her officiating journey when her oldest child switched from ice hockey to soccer and the volunteer signup sheet was passed around.

“The mothers would volunteer to wash uniforms, or bring oranges, or whatever,” she says. “I just did not have the time for that. Is there anything else I could do? 'You could referee,' they said. I had umpired softball games, so I thought that sounded like fun.”

She started at U-6, where much of refereeing was reminding the kids which way the other team’s goal was. As each of her children started joining soccer teams, Ellis’ many hours over the weekends on soccer fields spread over several age groups, as did her reffing.

“It morphed into [center] reffing the older boys, that morphed into reffing the Latin League, that morphed into doing college, and then I met John Davies," said Ellis.

Davies, a former top NASL referee, was also mentoring teenage Brian Hall at the time.

Ellis recalls: “John said, 'You have a really great style about you. You handle things well, would you like to learn how to become a higher level referee, maybe a national referee? You will be breaking a barrier, there's never been a woman. But they have to know you earned your way. If you commit to that, I will support you.'"

She trained for a year and half to prepare for the same fitness tests required of the males, which included a 400-meter sprint minimum time that wasn’t far off from what women Olympians clocked in at. When she arrived at the national license course in New Orleans for 200 candidates, it was 199 men, and Ellis.

The biggest challenge -- the course's final test -- was indeed the 400-meters, to be run immediately after a series of calisthenics and sprints. Ellis came up short, but by less than two seconds. Close enough to earn another shot at it the next morning.

Many of the men, despite having spent the night partying, showed to up to support her at 6 a.m.

“It was dark and foggy humid,” says Ellis, “A bunch of guys came out. They wore T-shirts -- I have no idea where they found them -- but on the front of the shirts it said: ‘Men of quality are never threatened by women of equality.’ I was so touched by that. It really gave me a lift.”

Some of the men, who’d passed the course the day before, joined Ellis for the situps and sprints, and when she started the 400 meters, a couple of them paced her in front and a couple others from behind.

She finished four seconds better than the required time.

Betty Ellis sported her ref uniform one more time before honoring the Smithsonian Museum's request.

Ellis, now 81 years old, works for FIRST IN, an emergency response training company. She had spent most of her life as a teacher after starting out as a nurse.

Of all her vocations and avocations, the reffing felt unique.

“I skied, I scuba-dived, but refereeing is the most exhilarating,” she says. “It keeps you absolutely present in the here and now for a longer period than anything else. That makes you feel so exhilarated after the game.”

Ellis also served as a high school athletic director and coach of both boys and girls teams in Washington state, where one of the players who attended soccer camps she helped run was a teenage Michelle Akers. After day 1 of watching Akers, Ellis sent her to compete with the boys.

“I still watch soccer, and I especially enjoy the success of women’s national team, which hadn't even started when I began reffing pros,” Ellis said. “I would have loved to have reffed some of the women’s games. I would have loved to meet the players and encourage them. I’d love to meet the new referees coming in.”

As far as making sports history …

"I knew I was breaking a barrier, but I didn't know what to expect at the time, but I hoped. I hoped. I'm very happy that I opened the eyes of women who decided to try it too.”

8 comments about "An icon among referees: Betty Ellis made history on Mother's Day 40 years ago".
  1. Adam Cohen, May 7, 2021 at 11:16 a.m.

    great story

  2. Michael Saunders, May 7, 2021 at 11:42 a.m.

    Mike ... HUGE THANK YOU for posting.   I recally Ms. Ellis from days as an NASL official.  What has troubled me for years is that her name is rarely ever mentioned as the first female sports official in professional sports in the USA.

    Yes there was one female umpire for one game in MLB back in the early sevnties (I believe) but Ms. Ellis is not cited at all even by a web site dedictaed to female officials    Hope we can make that change.

  3. George Vecsey, May 7, 2021 at 1:27 p.m.

    Mike, great column. I wrote about her in 1982...but you have those great anecdotes -- the George Best byplay, and the guy t-shirts.....So much fun to read about her. And the Akers connection-- most dominant female player I've ever seen. Best, George

  4. Mike Woitalla replied, May 7, 2021 at 6:03 p.m.

    George, I got lucky because the first article I found was your excellent May 14, 1982, NY Times column.

  5. Kevin Leahy, May 7, 2021 at 1:34 p.m.

    Loved this!

  6. Kevin Sims, May 7, 2021 at 3:04 p.m.

    Great story! I did not know that.

  7. Dick Burns, May 7, 2021 at 5:37 p.m.

    We had started an annual referee training program we called super Saturday and would bring in guest speakers. Keith Walker, then Secretary General of S Soccer, suggested that we invite Betty. THe staff hosted her on Friday night and then on Saturday Morning I picked her up at her hotel and rather being in referee warmups, she was dressedto the nines in very femine clothing. I was smewhat suprissed she explained that she wanted to show that she was a real lady who could handle the job on the field. Her storyi about being on the field with Georgie Best was very interesting. Happy mothers day Betty. 

  8. William Shine, May 9, 2021 at 3 p.m.

    Great story.  Sounds like fate.  One of the most recoginized names in the history of the game called offside on two goals by the first woman ref ever.  Goes beyond coincidence in my view. Both coaches say correct call.

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