She’s in a league of her own!
Soccer referee Natalie Simon just made history as the first Black woman to earn a FIFA badge, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Simon is a Louisiana native, getting her start in soccer as a player in high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She went on to attend college at Stetson, a predominantly white private school near Orlando where she played forward. After college, she joined a semi pro women’s team before trying her hand at coaching.
Neither was a good fit, so she decided to take up refereeing, working her way up the ranks from age-group competitions to working the USL Championship, the second tier of men’s professional soccer in the United States. She also worked the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) , one of the top women’s leagues across the globe. Now Simon has become one of just four American women to earn a FIFA badge, the highest rank a referee can obtain, which allows her to work international games and tournaments. This makes Simon the first Black woman to earn the honor in the history of the sport.
“It’s kind of a miracle that I’ve arrived in this moment. A lot of things have to fall into place. And a little bit of luck, you know, knowing the sacrifices that not only my parents, but my grandparents and my great grandparents, made for me to have the opportunities that I do. For me, everything is intertwined as far as what my family’s gone through, what I’m experiencing now and what I’m trying to do for future generations,” said Simon.
The 32-year-old referee is both Black and Native American and has traced her lineage to discover that she descends from enslaved people on both sides. For Simon, it’s important that she never forget that and it has served as her inspiration, officiating a sport that is largely male and white.
“I haven’t had anyone to really identify with. I was always the only Black person on every team I played on. I was always the token Black girl…I spent a lot of time wondering if I belonged. I spent most of my career questioning if I was good enough. I think a lot of Black people, especially Black women, can relate to that…I carry that with me on the field. I carry the weight of that. Knowing that the decisions I make can impact what happens in the future for other Black women that are coming up behind me,” Simon explained.
Rodney Kenney, a referee instructor and former assistant coach for Simon at Kenney said he’s not surprised that she’s made it this far because of how good she is, her skills making her a near perfect official.
“First of all, she’s super fast. A lot of female referees had trouble in the men’s game because they’re not fast enough to keep up. She was fast enough. Secondly, she has an attitude. That is, I’m not going to take s--- from anybody. She wouldn’t be cowered by critic[ism]. I just thought she’d do a great job…She never does anything halfway,” said Kenney.
Still, becoming a referee isn’t a small feat, much less accomplishing what Simon has. Not only do aspiring referees have to pass a written knowledge exam about the game, they also have to pass a physical test that includes a series of 10-meter sprints, and an interval test of high-speed runs spanning 75 meters. There is no allotment made for gender on the test either. While the promotion of women officials in sports like Simon and Maia Chaka, the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game, are tell-tale signs of progress, women officials still have a long way to go in terms of breaking into the top ranks of men’s sports across the board.
The NFL has just three on-field women officials, the NBA has only had six full-time women referees in the history of the league and the American Hockey League boasts a mere 10 women officials this season. Even in soccer with their limited numbers, many of the women referees are relegated to being assistants or what’s referred to as “fourth officials,” those officiating who are limited in scope when it comes to decision making.
Simon has played all of the roles but still has her sights set on the top spot as a center referee, allowed to control everything that happens in the game, in both the men’s game and during top international matches for the women. Just last season, Tori Penso made history as the first woman to work as center referee in MLS in two decades and Simon has her goals set on being the second.
“These women are being put in those positions because they can do it, not because they want women in those positions. They’re put in there because they’re good referees. There are a lot of guys that are not anywhere near what Natalie is. She’s really, really good. She was good from the get-go,” said Kenney.
Kari Seitz, the only official to ever work four Women’s World Cups and four Olympic tournaments and head of the women’s refereeing program for FIFA, spoke about the urgency of diversity for the organization and what Simon’s appointment could mean for inclusion in general.
“Diversity is inherent in the work we do. Leaders [are] finally recognizing that quality is key when making appointments. Gender, race, religion, motherhood are not factors. Hopefully with more women role models we’ll get more women referees involved in the U.S.,” said Seitz.
Congratulations Natalie! Because of you, we can!