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While rugby refereeing has traditionally been male dominated, a number of women have paved a path to elite level rugby refereeing. In total, six women have reached the pinnacle of refereeing in the United States, making the National Referee Panel. We caught up with the two current members of the panel, Haylee Slaughter and Lee Bryant to discuss how they are forging a path for women and what they learned about themselves and life along the way.
Both Slaughter and Bryant have worked their way up the ranks. Slaughter has refereed college and club elite levels including national championships and the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship. She has officiated the North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) 7s, the Hong Kong 7s and was the first ever woman to referee a men’s World Cup Qualifier. Bryant has been a mainstay at club and college national championships and has been around the world refereeing international games. She has overseen games at the Pan Am Games, Las Vegas 7s, Dubai and other international contests.
Getting to the top is not easy, however. To become a national panel referee you have to rise through three levels, starting with the local level, territorial level and then national panel level. As you go up the ranks, referees are evaluated based on performance and fitness. In order to make the National Referee Panel, everyone must pass a rigorous multi-stage fitness test, with more elite levels of rugby requiring a better fitness level.
“Twice a year we are all required to take a fitness exam to maintain our status on the National Panel,” said Bryant. “We are held to the same physical standards as our male counterparts.”
Along with fitness, decision making, composure and quality of refereeing are all evaluated. As you move into higher profile games, each decision is scrutinized and graded. Being able to handle criticism and setbacks are key to succeeding.
“There were performance reviewers who thought I didn't have what it takes to ref at a high level. Everyone has to deal with critics at some point,” said Slaughter. “As my own worst critic, my confidence and self-belief was maybe my biggest struggle of all.”
Through all of the trials and tribulations, both have indicated that they have learned a tremendous amount about themselves and life. How to do deal with people and how to overcome adversity are several of a myriad of things they credit refereeing rugby for helping with self-improvement.
“Refereeing rugby has taught me that you can do anything you want and that you are tougher than you think. You have your ups and downs in life and that is life and what matters is how you learn from it,” Bryant told Penn Mutual.
“Refereeing showed me that I needed to figure out how to better get along with people in general. "Man-management" is something we talk a lot about, and I had to study my body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. to learn how to present myself in a way that made the players feel comfortable and safe. There were times when I lost my confidence and had to just pray and persevere and put the work in to earn it back, and proving to myself that I could do that was an enormous personal victory,” Slaughter indicated.
All in all, both women have learned a lot about themselves and life through refereeing. They have treasured the experience, been ambassadors for the game and ultimately look forward to supporting the next generation of female referees in this country.
“It's an honor to represent USA Rugby and all sports officials everywhere I go. Refereeing is not an easy thing to do, and that's what makes it special. When you reach a certain level and have that visibility from doing big games, you've got to be willing to let your mistakes be made an example of so others can learn from it. Helping support the next generation of referees is something I feel very strongly about,” Slaughter concluded.
“I consider myself a role model for young women. I want them to look at me and know that anything is possible with hard work and dedication,” Bryant added.