By Torsheta Jackson
Dr. Adrienne Barnes, stepped onto the damp turf of the South Jackson football field. She adjusted her white referee’s cap on her head before studying the teams gathered. Back judge, Dominique Sutton, handed the ball to the kicker. Another quick glance by Barnes ensured everyone was in position. Satisfied, she blew her whistle signaling the kickoff and making history.
Fifty years after the Title IX was enacted prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government, Mississippi’s first all-female officiating crew took the field Friday night. Barnes was the lead official.
“It’s a man’s world but we are doing it,” said Felicia Davis
The on-field crew consisted of Barnes as Referee, Sarah Fleming as Umpire, Sutton as Back Judge, Sherri Vaughans as Head Linesman, Fran Adams as Line Judge, Alona Alexander as Front Judge and Davis as Side Judge. Phylicia Cotten served as Electronic Clock Operator and Constance Clark served as the 40 Second Clock Operator. They worked alongside an all-female chain crew of Tamika Lipsey, Timika Morris and Charmaine Smith.
Another note of importance, the crew was not only all-female. It was also all black.
“It is the first-ever time we have had 12 African-American women working a high school football game,” said Middle Mississippi assigner Curtis Lowe. “We (had) seven on the field, two ladies on the clock and three women on the chains.”
The idea of an all-female crew began last September after Barnes read about Oregon fielding its first crew filled with women. Lowe backed the idea wholeheartedly. Barnes and Lowe gathered the group of women from across the state. The crew who already participated in weekly study sessions via Zoom have now also worked preseason scrimmage games together.
“This year when I took over the Middle Mississippi High School Association,” said Lowe from the sideline. “I told the women in July that they would be working a game and they said why don’t we add two more women and make it a seven woman crew. So we brought a lady in from Memphis and took the lady off the clock and put her on the field.”
The importance of the feat was not lost on Barnes who has 18 years of officiating experience including football, basketball, baseball and NCAA softball. She says it took ten years for her to be assigned to an on-field position with a football crew.
“I kept saying that I wanted to be actually on the field. I didn’t want to be a clock operator. I love football,” said Barnes. “The assigner at that time said we already had a woman on the field. That was Sarah Thomas. That was the woman on the field at that time in Mississippi period.”
Thomas, a Pascagoula native who now resides in Brandon, began her officiating career in 1996 and worked her varsity game in 1999. In 2007, she became the first woman to officiate a major college football game and in 2015 she became the first permanent female official in NFL history.
“This is important because it shows that it’s not male-dominated anymore. Just because we are women that doesn’t mean that we don’t know the sport,” Vaughans told Mississippi Scoreboard. “We know the sport, we understand the sport and we love the sport. We don’t have to have played the game to know what is going on.”
Some of them have played though. As a matter of fact, Alexander currently plays with the Mississippi Lady Panthers, a women’s semi-pro football team. Barnes was raised in a family filled with college and pro-football players. She grew up playing baseball and peewee league football, so officiating football was a natural choice for her. She began officiating other sports and was challenged by her son to add football to her repertoire.
“He told me I was getting all into refereeing but he bet I wouldn’t do (football)” she said. “My brother told him later to never bet me because I was going to prove
Fleming started officiating a peewee football league on Saturday mornings because they were short staffed. She soon realized that she loved being on the field and tried her hand at middle school before moving up to high school. Adams, a Dallas Cowboys fan, was introduced to the idea at a basketball officials clinic by Clifton Cotten, Phylicia’s uncle.
“I went in for a basketball camp and while I was there he encouraged me to come out with football,” Adams said. “I had actually wanted to be a football official and not basketball but I had no idea how to get started.”
Phylicia Cotton’s uncle and father are well-known officials. She grew up around the sport and signed up to begin officiating right out of high school.
“It was just something I looked forward to,” she said. “I knew the year I graduated high school, I was signing up to be at least a clock operator and that’s where I’ve been since.”
The ladies note that they received tremendous support from across the country but for them it has been the comments from other women that have been the most inspirational.
“I’ve had a couple of people say that was their mother’s dream but they were told no,” said Barnes. “I heard that comment when I started in baseball too. They said major league baseball would never accept the female and it was frustrating so I ended up switching over to softball, but you just have to keep doing it. We’ll get there.”
“It is important for little boys and little girls to see that women can do it too,” added Vaughans. “There have been kids and parents when I’ve walked the stands going to the field say to each other ‘That’s a lady ref’ and they get excited. It does my heart good to see that because then they can decide if they want to be a “lady ref” or if they want to play the sport.”