ASHLAND – Most high school prep sports fans are used to seeing the black and white shirts of referees running up and down the basketball courts and circling the matted ring at wrestling matches.
But, how many of those Nebraska State Athletic Association officials are female?
According to NSAA records, there are 889 male officials and 28 females working games across the state today.
Jon Dolliver, assistant director at Nebraska State Athletic Association, said increasing the number of female referees at high school sporting events is critical.
“We’re having trouble finding and keeping females in this profession,” he said.
Some sports are particularly lacking in female officials including basketball.
Other sports like volleyball have more female coaches, and thus, more mentors for players who may in turn want to become officials someday.
Dolliver, whose wife is a head volleyball coach, is the father of five daughters, all of whom are athletes.
Having more role models for female athletes is really empowering, Dolliver said. Seeing how hard other girls have worked to excel in a sport provides so much support and encouragement to an athlete.
“It gives them a sense of ’Hey, look what I can do,’” he said.
Jordyn Keeney has worked as a basketball referee for five years. She‘s 23 years old, but looks like she’s still in high school herself, with her long blonde hair and lithe athletic build.
Her basketball playing career started in fifth grade with the Lincoln Cornhusker Shooting Stars. At Lincoln Southwest High School Keeney played until she “blew out” her knee senior year.
After signing to play at Central College in Pella, Iowa, she tore her meniscus.
“The recovery was long and painful,” she said. “But nothing was worse than missing my last playing season in high school.”
When the opportunity to referee came up – thanks to a nudge from her father Paul Keeney, a club volleyball referee, she said she “jumped headfirst.”
The only day of the week she’s not officiating now is Wednesday. Keeney mainly officiates for prep games, but has also refed young kids.
What she likes best is officiating for girls’ high school games. She said she wants to officiate “all the way up to Division 1 and the WNBA.”
Every official must pass a series of online tests and attend rules meetings to become certified, approved and registered with the Nebraska State Athletics Association, Keeney said.
Kelsey Appleby, a high school basketball player from O’Neill, perfected her officiating skills through a University of Nebraska-Lincoln intermural training program.
At first, she was intimidated -- especially when coaches and fans would look at her “weird” -- but now that she’s built up some credibility and confidence she said she enjoys being on the court.
Appleby said she mainly officiates at junior high and junior varsity girls’ games, but has reffed Class D boys.
She remembers being nervous at her first varsity game in Beatrice.
“I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes,” she said.
When she’s not running up and down the hardwood, Appleby is student teaching at Norris High School and waitressing at an east Lincoln bar and restaurant.
Appleby said officiating crews spend a lot of time together, often riding to and from games and eating together after a game. Those are valuable friendships.
“I had an all-female crew once and I know the players thought that was cool,” Appleby said. “Usually the refs are men in their 20s, 30s and 40s so the girls could relate to us.”
Keeney agrees that being role models for young female athletes is an important part of officiating.
“I love reffing with other females,” Keeney said.
Keeney said she relies on a support system of other female officiates to help her manage being a woman in a mostly male career field.
“It’s the little things that get you down,” she said referring to the few racist and sexist comments she received during one game. The worst offense she has encountered, however, involved a coach cyber stalking her through Facebook.
Keeney said she’s reminded of her gender every time she opens an email from the NSAA and the greeting is “Gentlemen.”
“I don’t like how it is not normal to have an equal number of female to male officials,” she said. “Hopefully one day that will change.”