On a mid-September evening, a referee tosses a flag during a football game between Valencia and Bakersfield.
The gesture is met with anxiety and frustration from someone seated in the press box.
“How could he make that call?” the person asks angrily.
That he is actually a she. It’s Karina Tovar down on the field, the only female prep football official out of 100 prep football referees in the San Fernando Valley Unit of the California Football Officials Association.
“That’s a compliment to me,” Tovar says of situations like the one at the Valencia game. “I’ve had that, we’re coming out of games where they’re booing us all and I’ve had coaches, (say) ‘Oh man we had a girl out here?’
“They get so caught off guard where it’s like okay, that’s good because if you’re doing your job, you shouldn’t be thinking about the refs.”
While Tovar, 27, is able to blend in with the rest of the zebras on the field in most cases, she also acknowledges that she’s in a fairly unique employment situation.
She began officiating basketball games while earning a degree at Cal State Northridge. As a lifelong athlete and a college student looking for some easy money, the decision to take a job as a basketball ref was easy.
“It was my dream job handed to me,” Tovar said.
She soon added softball officiating to her resume but kept doing basketball games, too. On occasion, she’d work a game with a referee who also officiated football.
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“I would work with these football guys and they had kind of this ‘don’t mess with me vibe,’ and I was like, what is it?” Tovar said.
Seeking that same aura, she decided to take a crack at football officiating. She got in touch with Fred Turner, a ref who is currently on the board of directors for the San Fernando Valley Unit in addition to serving as a classroom instructor and a referee.
“I met her on the softball field about six years ago,” Turner said. “She was very personable and very eager and I think we worked a few games and she said, ‘I want to come out for football.’”
Tovar took the required courses for football. She listened carefully to instructors who had officiated in the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences.
Her lack of experience as a football player was never a barrier. She sought advice from former players and began working youth football games, then worked her way up to JV games and eventually, varsity.
The first varsity game she worked was memorable. Or maybe not so much, as Tovar was hit on the sideline and suffered a concussion.
“I got wiped out,” she said. “Like what you see on TV.”
She had to sit out a few games after that, and fortunately, it was the only physical blow she’s taken thus far in her officiating career.
Verbal blows, however, have varied. Most coaches, like Canyon’s Rich Gutierrez see her as another striped, yellow-flag-throwing person.
“Honestly, she’s a referee to me,” Gutierrez said. “Whether she’s a female or male, I think she’s awesome. And I think she calls a wonderful game, she’s a part of a great crew, so to tell you the truth, I don’t see a difference.”
In some cases, coaches refuse to yell in her direction because she’s a female. Fans will shout at her fellow refs in a parking lot, but avoid contact with her, even if she made the call the fans are upset over.
She’s even been told to her face by another referee that he is not happy with a female on the field.
“Identify the ones that don’t like you and it’s okay,” Tovar said of how she handles disgruntled co-workers. “Because at the end of the day, you just have to work together.”
“There’s some good guys out here and there are some men who are just so professional that they are just so encouraging. They’re just good people and not only do they want me to succeed, they want the other young guys to succeed too. And those are the people you want to be like.”
Turner said that it can be difficult to find not just females, but young people in general to add to his referee roster. Advancing young talent is a priority.
But the ones that are in his program, are skilled and worth defending.
“We don’t discourage them,” Turner said. “I had to quiet a few coaches a few times, because it’s new for them so they don’t always like that but it is what it is.
“If she didn’t have talent she wouldn’t be on my crew and she’s got talent.”
Tovar’s goal is to reach the National Football League and follow in the steps of female pro football refs like Shannon Eastin and Sarah Thomas.
For the moment, her routine consists of continuing to get better each day and putting in hours of training.
“People ask me, ‘Oh are you going to be the next one (in the NFL)?’ I say, ‘Oh I want to be number six or number seven,’” Tovar said. “I really want these ladies to get there. My time is going to come and it’s a pretty exciting journey.”