The ad ran this past Mother’s Day in the Daily Herald, the largest newspaper in suburban Chicago.
“Join the Women in Black: Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Referees,” it read. “Become a Soccer Referee.”
Benefits were listed: “Earn income. Flexible hours. Work outdoors. Great college credentials. Build confidence. Learn leadership. Contribute to the Beautiful Game.”
Four female officials stared directly – and authoritatively – into the camera. They ranged from Yatzeni (an 8th-grader) and college students Solange and Yuzim (the latter, U.S. Youth Soccer’s 2022 National Young Referee of the Year) to Becky, holding a baby.
Her credentials were impressive. Becky Pagan has been a “woman in black” for 26 years. She’s a U.S. Soccer National Referee, with professional league, and NCAA and NAIA championships – for both genders – on her resume.
In May, she had just been named Illinois Youth Soccer Association’s state referee administrator. The ad was part of the organization’s outreach efforts. Finding officials has never been easy. Post-COVID – with referees retiring or not returning in droves – it’s tougher than ever. The IYSA ranks have shrunk from about 5,000 to 3,000, Pagan says.
The number of female refs is particularly small. Pagan does not have exact figures, but estimates that fewer than 10 percent are girls or women.
In the 50 years since Title IX was enacted, playing and coaching has become much more attractive to females. Officiating has not kept pace. The issue is not unique to soccer.
There is abuse – usually verbal, sometimes physical. It comes from coaches, players and parents. “When people show up to a sporting event, they seem to forget all politeness and decorum. They think it’s OK to yell and scream, no matter how young the referee is,” she says.
Refereeing can be lonely. Unlike teams that grow close over a season, officials work with constantly changing partners – or solo. “You’re either with a brand new ‘team’ every game, or you’re out there by yourself,” says Pagan.
In Illinois youth soccer, pay increases have lagged. Many leagues pay a lump sum at the end of the season, too. “When I worked at K-Mart, I got my money every two weeks,” she notes.
Socially, Pagan adds, girls have not been brought up to think of themselves as authority figures. “That’s changing. But it’s hundreds of years of systemic social history.” It’s hard enough for a new, young official to stand up to adults berating them from the sidelines and stands. It’s even tougher for girls – especially when they have few female role models.
Pagan caught the soccer bug early. She followed an older brother – first as a player, then a ref – in Algonquin, Illinois. With five brothers, she was used to being the only girl in many situations. Still, it was intimidating to be 12 years old, and the only girl among a couple hundred males, at her first officiating clinics.
At the same time, she found refereeing empowering. “Most guys got paper routes, and girls babysat,” Pagan recalls. “I hated babysitting. But I liked soccer. And reffing a game for an hour, you got the same pay as five hours of babysitting.”
Her natural self-confidence helped too. Adult coaches yelled. But she learned to say, “You’re standing at midfield. I was there. I saw the ball cross the line.”
Pagan’s playing career ended after high school and club teams. Then her officiating career took off. Now, as the top youth referee administrator in her state, she’s searching for ways to find young players who were where she was nearly 30 years ago, and sell them on the idea of blowing a whistle.
Besides the newspaper ad, and educational webinars, the IYSA is urging leagues and clubs to help. Current players can officiate “the game they know and love” on non-game days. She’s particularly interested in college athletes. “They’re fit. They’re at the top of the game. They know the rules and the tactics. And they can make money,” Pagan says.
There are other satisfactions, too. Pagan enjoys controlling a match by developing on-field relationships with players. Each one is different – and so is every situation. Some situations demand a quiet word; others, a strong voice. Each referee develops his or her own style.
“Soccer is such an enjoyable game,” says Pagan. “There are so many life lessons for players: leadership, friendship, community. You can get those as referees, too. We just have to find a way for people to see that.”
Photo: Michael Janosz/ISI Photos