Dec 15 2013
A Chat with Sandra Serafini
Last week, my classmate Lauren Oliveri and I had the opportunity to have lunch with Sandra Serafini. I was honestly a bit intimidated to meet the former FIFA referee and PhD neuroscientist. (Who wouldn’t be? Only a superhuman has those types of qualifications!) However, my fears were instantly quelled as we dove into conversation – literally. As we sat down to eat, Serafini recounted bets that she would make with her linesmen while officiating notoriously troublesome men’s teams. Before the game, she would wager a free appetizer on how long into the game the first dive would occur. It had to be a real dive – a cautionable offense – not just a weak tumble. The betting would turn into a Price is Right style competition, with the officials one-upping each other by a second. And when Serafini won (as she most often did), she would pull out her yellow card, and then turn and smirk to her linesmen thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m getting the most expensive app on the menu.” From there, conversation bounced between all aspects of Serafini’s career as an official, a neuroscientist, and a professional referee assignor.
The Canadian native began officiating as a means of paying rent through college. In the process, she amassed around 2,000 games, often doing between 15 and 20 games a week. When I asked Serafini whether she always knew that she wanted to become a FIFA, her answer was simple: becoming a state referee seemed like the next logical step and she never looked back. Serafini continued to climb the soccer ranks and became a national in 2005 and a FIFA a year later in 2006.
Throughout her refereeing career, Serafini traveled around the world, officiating CONCACAF games and other international matches. Many of her fondest memories occurred off the playing field. In Mexico fans asked for autograph; in Holland, she shared post-game beers with Dutch spectators, and in China, she worked with an all-Chinese crew where communication consisted of more charades than English.
While at the international level, Serafini only officiated women’s matches, she worked in men’s leagues domestically. We discussed the challenges of being the female authority on a field of all men, and Serafini found that players and coaches are more willing to test the waters when they see a woman in the yellow uniform. Every new team required Serafini to prove herself as an official and demonstrate her command on the laws of the game. Serafini has a self-proclaimed “strong personality,” and that certainly aided her player and coach management skills. On the field, Serafini had a strict “no screaming” policy. When players would lose control, she would tell them matter-of-factly, “There will be no screaming today. Let’s have an adult conversation.” And Serafini would listen. She smiles as she explained to Lauren and I at lunch, “Maybe they’re full of it, but maybe I’m full of it.” Serafini realizes, like all referees, she is human and capable of making a mistake. In the case that she missed a call, she would do everything in her power to listen to the players’ complaints and blow the whistle on the next one.
Serafini takes the same approach with coaches, especially when she’s placed on the sidelines in between the teams’ benches as a 4th official. When a coach would spout off at the head referee, Serafini approached him calmly and told him, “Whisper anything you want in my ear. I’m your therapist for the game.” Coaches were generally surprised but they took Serafini up on the offer. Serafini recognizes that coaches jobs are dependent on results and every call and no-call counts at the professional level. Coaches face extreme pressure during games, so while she occasionally used humor to defuse tense situations, her main aim was to give them a person who would listen.
Outside of the refereeing world, Serafini works as a PhD neuroscientist at the Duke Hospital, specializing in functional intraoperative and extraoperative mapping for neurosurgical patients . She laughed as she explains that in season, she doesn’t really sleep. Her schedule consists of: waking up around 5 am, going to work, catching up on emails between OR cases, heading home and spending “quality time with the spouse,” then working until 11:30 pm, and repeating it all the next day. Luckily, Serafini currently works in a lab that is understanding of her hectic schedule. Her former lab thought refereeing was “something you could just do on weekends,” so she was forced to leave.
Although Serafini has given up her whistle, she is still very much a part of the refereeing world as a Women’s Referee Coach and NWSL Assignor of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO). Not only does Serafini assign and coach referees, but she also works to make the path easier for women following in her shoes. In Serafini’s day, all female referees had to pay for their own training out of pocket. Serafini now works with PRO general manager, Peter Walton, to acquire the same benefits for female referees as professional male referees. She has also been working to add guidelines for pregnancy-related time off.
When Peter Walton stepped on board, he openly invited women to all men’s professional leagues. This hasn’t always been the case, and Serafini feels that opportunities for women have waxed and waned at the discretion of the person in charge. Serafini is proud to see that times have changed:
“When I go around to the tournaments or when I bring the officials into the NWSL, I’m able to say if you do the training, get the qualifications and demonstrate the ability, which they are all capable of, they have the same chance as anybody else. It may seem minor, but it’s really big for this country.” 
At the conclusion of our lunch, Serafini reiterated that women’s refereeing truly is “moving forward.” In recent years, professional women referees have made significant strides in numbers and level of assignments. Serafini has been a both pioneer and a changemaker in this process, and with her continued involvement in the PRO, I do not expect this forward motion to stop anytime soon.
 Sandra Serafini PhD, MA. Duke University School of Medicine. http://surgery.duke.edu/faculty/details/0271401
 “PRO and NWSL breathe new life into US female officiating.” Professional Referees Organization. http://www.proreferees.com/news-pro-and-nwsl-breathe-new-life-into-us-female-officiating.php