All-female referees take the firld
Mississippi’s first all-women referee crew takes the field.
Barbara Gauntt, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
The night was hot and muggy, with sweat dripping everywhere. A typical Mississippi summer night in August before the pads started popping between Murrah and Cleveland Central for their season opener of the high school football season.
Before Friday’s game, there was a calmness as a team of 12 women posed for pictures while trying to convey what it would feel like to make Mississippi sports history.
“We don’t want to be the first group of women to call a football game,” head official Adrienne Barnes said. “We also do not want to be the last, we don’t want this game to stop with us.”
Barnes, a referee of 19 years, led a crew that is believed to be the nation’s first all-Black, women’s officiating crew to call a varsity high school football game Friday night − and definitely the first in Mississippi history.
And this game was no rout. Murrah and Cleveland Central went back and forth before Central stuffed Murrah on a goal-line stand to hold on for a wild 49-45 win at South Jackson Stadium.
“I would give this crew a high grade on their performance tonight,” MHSAA officials assignor Curtis Lowe said.
Along with Barnes, the on-field Mississippi crew included Fran Adams, Alona Alexander, Felicia Davis, Sarah Fleming, Dominique Sutton and Sherri Vaughans. Phylicia Cotten and Constance Clark were clock operators, and Tamika Lipsey, Timika Morris and Charmaine Smith moved the chains.
Five of the on-field officials hail from the Jackson area, while Fleming is from Brookhaven and Davis from North Mississippi.
The MHSAA has nearly 50 women refereeing high school football games, according to MHSAA assistant director Greg Freeman. The issue wasn’t about finding women with experience — each official in Friday’s matchup had at least 12 years — it was a matter of creating the opportunity.
“They all work on Friday nights,” Lowe said. “Just don’t work together and I decided to get them the opportunity. Seven women together.”
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Lowe started kicking around the idea of an all-women’s officiating crew after hearing about a couple of crews calling games in Oregon and Texas in recent years. The Oregon crew sparked conversations between Lowe and Barnes, who started to focus on putting together the all-female crew together last fall.
It is not known whether the Oregon and Texas crews were the first all-women high school crews in the country or whether there ever had been an all-Black female crew before Friday. But if the latter existed, Freeman wasn’t aware of it.
“From everything that we’ve been able to gather from the National Federation of State High School Associations, we feel like that is the first time that there’s been an all-female Black officiating crew in a high school football game,” Freeman said. “I think it goes to show that we don’t discriminate against anyone.
“We want anyone that wants to come out and be a part of the game and be an official. We want them to come out and work hard.”
To prepare for Friday night, Barnes held Zoom meetings with the crew two to three times a week since July. The crew also worked several preseason scrimmages, all in preparation for the historic night − the women will return to their respective crews next week.
“Typically they never have more than one female on the field,” Barnes said. “… We want to show everyone, if they have the desire and are willing to work hard, they can do what we are doing. We need others to step up. We are not going to be here long, so we need someone else to follow behind us.
Murrah led 27-20 at the half. Cleveland Central pushed ahead in the the fourth quarter, behind quarterback Jarvis Beamon and the power running of Tajarvis Davis − both had two TDs − but the game ultimately came down to defense. On fourth-and-goal at the 5-yard line, Central stopped a reverse pass to seal the victory.
“To be honest I could not tell whether they were men or women out there tonight,” Murrah coach Marcus Gibson said. “There is nothing they let go, they were tough and stern about our sidelines.”
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