Qatar 2022: Kathryn Nesbitt's remarkable journey from analytical chemist to FIFA World Cup refereeing list

The US-based referee came to the spotlight when she became the first woman to referee a championship match in professional men's sports in North America last December.

Kathryn Nesbitt in a file photo; Credit: Twitter@Concacaf
By Karthik Raman | May 19, 2022 | 4 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

Kathryn Nesbitt’s journey from an analytical chemist to making a name for herself in the refereeing profession is incredible, to say the least. The US-based referee came to the spotlight when she became the first woman to referee a championship match in professional men’s sports in North America last December. She had taken the field for the match between Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup. However, her refereeing journey began at just 14 years of age and soon her love for chemistry also started. How she managed them both while forging her own path is inspiring in its own right.

“Everyone has their own path,” Nesbitt, who was named 2020 MLS Assistant Referee of the Year, told “I started as a kid as a summer job, and that kept me involved in soccer and eventually kept me involved in sports. I really liked staying active. It can be competitive in its own sense as well, so to have those opportunities to strive to be the best at something in kind of an athletic form was great for me, so that’s really what pushed me to keep moving forward with it.”

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Kathryn Nesbitt dives into chemistry

Nesbitt’s passion does not only limit herself to football. It also expands to analytical chemistry and teaching. She went on to explain how she switched from being a professor of chemistry to becoming a top official. “I was a professor of chemistry up until two weeks before the Women’s World Cup in 2019. I spent ten years doing my own research and starting my own lab at the university (Towson University in Baltimore). My background in research is on figuring out better ways to analyse brain chemicals, and our lab focused on developing, improving and optimising the techniques for sampling brain chemicals and then analysing them.”

Academic background

In 2010, Kathryn Nesbitt earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Saint John Fisher College, Rochester. Then she moved to the University of Pittsburgh to get a PhD in chemistry in 2015. It was also the same year when she made her Major League Soccer debut as an assistant referee in the match between D.C. United and Columbus Crew. Then in 2017, she became an assistant professor at Towson University, Maryland.

Speaking about how her analytical personality has helped her progress as an assistant referee, Nesbitt said, “Specifically for me, you’re constantly making decisions and they’re not always black and white. It’s about being able to take in a lot of data at one time – how a tackle actually happens, the player’s reaction, what’s going on in the game – and make the best decisions. Referees are also incredibly dedicated to their role as well. We take games just as seriously as the players. Our preparation is actually quite similar to what they’re doing.”

“There are black and white decisions. One defender pulling down the attacker who’s five feet from goal is always going to be denying a goalscoring opportunity, but that’s never actually how those things play out. And one soccer scenario isn’t going to happen exactly the same way again. The game’s always changing. My main role as an assistant referee is the offside rule, and that isn’t always as black and white as it looks sometimes.”

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When was her professional debut?

Kathryn Nesbitt made her professional debut in 2013. It was the inaugural match of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) between FC Kansas City and Portland Thorns in front of a large crowd. For the first time ever, the upcoming World Cup in Qatar which will take place from November 21 to December 18 will include three female referees and three assistant referees. The female officials are Stéphanie Frappart from France, Salima Mukansanga from Rwanda and Yoshimi Yamashita from Japan. The assistant referees are Neuza Back from Brazil, Karen Díaz Medina from Mexico and Nesbitt from the USA.

Being a referee is a far more tough job than one might think, and when one minor error occurs, everyone calls them out. While their positive work goes unnoticed, their mistakes are highlighted on a massive scale. Nesbitt is very well aware of the perception of referees and states that they are equally upset as anyone when a mistake is made. “We understand we will be the bad guy,” she said. “When there are mistakes, it’s always a human feature of us. Referees try to be the best for the game and we want to be the best in what we do. We are just upset as anyone when a mistake is made.”

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