This fall, when Cat Conti stepped onto the gridiron for a game between Southeast Missouri State University and the University of Kansas, she became the first woman to officiate football for the Big 12, serving as center judge on the conference’s new eight-official lineup. The Los Angeles native started out hoping for a career under the lights, then decided she would be better off behind the scenes – and ended up in a job that offers a little bit of both.
Champion Magazine: Did you play sports growing up?
Cat Conti: I did not. That is kind of the irony that I have chosen to do this as an avocation. I played one year of softball when I was 11, and I think I either struck out or walked every time I was at bat.
CM: So how did you get interested in football?
CC: In high school a boyfriend was a huge 49ers fan. After church on Sundays we would watch the football games with our youth group and our friends. When I went to college, I developed a reputation for being a football fan – not because of any male influence, but because I liked football.
CM: And that translated into an interest in officiating?
CC: No. I was a theater arts major in college. Growing up in Los Angeles, lots of young girls had aspirations to be in the limelight. But I realized I was a horrible actor. Terrible. So bad I embarrassed myself. I decided to work behind the scenes, and I wrote and directed a couple of plays. But I realized I could start working at a lower-level position and do everything right and still there were so many things that were out of my control in determining my success or failure.
CM: So that’s when a career in officiating came to mind?
CC: Not quite. I moved back home to figure my life out. I think they call it the quarter-life crisis – where you can do anything, go anywhere and it paralyzes you. The realization that I could be anything overwhelmed me, so I got a job waiting tables. A lot of the high school coaches, players and parents would come in Friday nights after the football games, and I got to know them. Then one coach happened to be in for lunch one day, and I was asking him, “What am I going to do with myself?” I asked him how one gets a job on the chain crew. I thought that’s what I wanted to do, to watch football with the best seat in the house and hold the stick. And he said, “I think you would be really good doing the officiating, being the person on the field with the stripes and the whistle and the flag.”
CM: Was the rest of the football community as welcoming?
CC: The very first meeting I went to was quite telling. There were a couple old guys, veteran officials who had been officiating for five decades. One walked up to the desk where I was sitting and said, “You know this is football officiating?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Not volleyball.” And I said, “OK.” And he said, “Contact sport.” And I said, “Great,” and he shrugged his shoulders. He just wanted to make sure I was there for the right reasons. Those officials love it so much. Every time a female enters a male-dominated world, I think everybody says, “What’s your motivation?”
CM: Did it get easier after that mediocre welcome?
CC: My hope is that the officials who have dedicated their lives to officiating recognize that I am in love with it as much as they are, and I am committed to excellence as much as they are. That’s where my presence is warmly embraced as an official.
CM: How would you describe the camaraderie of a college football officiating crew?
CC: It amazes me every time I think about it. You have seven human beings from seven very different walks of life, economic, cultural, educational backgrounds. And whether it’s three people at a freshman game or seven or eight officials walking onto a college football field, they all come together, and when you put on those stripes, you are part of a team, period. And you dedicate yourself to being excellent in your role so that we as a crew are able to best serve the team and the coaches that have worked so hard to also be out on that football field.
CM: Do you have any pregame rituals?
CC: As I’m standing waiting for the kickoff to happen, my thought every single game is a prayer that the crew can be focused and of one mind, that we can function as one unit and one body, and that I as an individual member of that crew see things clearly, hear things clearly, say things clearly, and focus and concentrate on every single call. I want to get more things right than I did last week.
CM: Has being an official changed how you watch the game?
CC: It’s impossible for it not to. First of all, I don’t have a team anymore. I don’t have allegiance to one team or another. There are specific coaches and players that I respect for how they handle themselves and their skill and their talent, but mostly I get to root for coaches and players individually based on their level of sportsmanship.
CM: You root for a team based on sportsmanship? Really?
CC: I didn’t care about that before. You just want your team to win. Now, as an official, my entire perspective has changed.
CM: Do you still yell at refs on TV?
CC: No. Never. You know why? Because I have been in those shoes. It is much, much more difficult than anybody imagines that it is. The officials we see on TV are so good because they make it look so easy. They make it look so fluid that it’s easy for fans at home to think they could do as good of a job.
CM: So is the NFL next?
CC: I will be happy to work at the highest level that I’m allowed to work. Right now I hope to get the chance to work another Big 12 game.