A referee since 2008, Lee Bryant is seemingly unstoppable. She is a World Rugby Educator, has refereed all levels of 7s and 15s rugby, including serving as an assistant referee at the World Cup and with Major League Rugby, and is a mainstay on the WPL circuit. Lee has retired from the USAR National Panel and the Northern California Referee Society board but is proud of having been the first woman to serve on the board. An optimist and athlete, Lee sees her development as a referee as a "constant state of improvement".
Where do you live:
Tell us a bit about your playing days:
I started playing in college at the University of Nevada, Reno when I was 19 years old. I had just stopped running track. I started off as a wing but finally ended up as a fullback. I just loved that position! I played 7's in the summers and did that for a few years after college with the Grizzlies, but there wasn't a women's club side in Reno so I was forced into retirement after I graduated.
How did you get into refereeing? What has the pathway been like for you?
When I was about 23, my good friend Don Pattalock (who had been the men's rugby coach at Nevada Reno, when I had played) called me up and said ‘I should be a referee.’ He picked me up at 4 am on a Saturday and drove me to the Bay Area and the rest is history. He took me under his wing and helped me through the first few years which are the hardest for young referees. The highest loss rate after becoming a certified referee is in the first 2 years. I have been pretty lucky in my development pathway. Both my local referee society and regional manager were very supportive, and I was very keen to travel and improve, so my rise through the ranks has been an amazing experience. I wish I could have progressed faster, but we can't manipulate time and maturation. You just have to do your best and be ready for opportunities when they arise. I was lucky enough to maintain a full-time job during my career so money wasn't usually an issue, it was the sacrifice away from my family and partners, missing weddings or baby showers, and decimating all your vacation time - that was usually more of a stress than the financial sacrifice.
What's great about being a referee?/what's the most challenging?:
Being in a match as a referee gives you the best seat in the house. I enjoyed the rush of being in a game, the same as I did as a player. It is also fun to be a student of the game. Referees are the biggest rugby nerds on the planet, and talking shop with us is always stimulating. As a referee, I have traveled all over the United States and different parts of the world. I have been to so many amazing places, seen some amazing matches, and met amazing people. I also come to know who I am and what I am capable of as a person. After going through the ‘fire’ of a tough season, recovering from an injury, surviving an intense match, or brushing yourself off from a bad game, as a referee, you find your limits and strengths and learn how to manage yourself. To be honest, being a referee is really, really tough. Being a high-level referee can take a lot of time, fitness, and resilience - it can be an 11-month season if you referee for 7s and 15s.
When you spend your weekends working as a ref and then back to the office on Monday, it can wear you down. If you have a bad game or make a bad call, it can haunt you and get into your head if you let it. I can still remember every red card I have ever given. I recall my ‘terrible calls’. I remember being a player impacted by an incorrect ref call, so it would eat me up inside when I realized I had made a bad call.
You've reffed for many years - what has been most surprising to you about the evolution of women's rugby?
The explosion of women's rugby. The number of teams, the number of players, the publicity, the increasing quality of play, and the amount of support. I grew up in the 1980s. My identity was as an athlete, and women's sports were not on TV, women were not on the Wheaties box like the men were. I feel that exposure is very different now, and I am so happy for the change.
What advice do you have for admins, coaches, and aspiring referees?
I just wish the referees didn't seem like an outsider to the game. All coaches and players should become certified as referees, and all referees need to understand what it is like to coach a team or how to run practice. When we all get better, the game gets better. We are all part of the rugby community.
Tell us about your non-rugby life:
I am very outdoorsy and get to the mountains as much as possible. I have a very supportive husband who played flanker for a team in Northern California so our house is littered with rugby paraphernalia. We have a 2-year-old son and two lovely dogs named Sierra and Nevada. In my free time, I like to travel, play music, and garden. My dream life would be homesteading in the middle of nowhere.
“I think last year, all the pieces finally came together. I felt good at home. I felt confident in my own skin. I felt experienced on the field. I accepted my shortcomings as a referee and was good at handling the stress of big games. I finally had created ‘Lee, the referee,’ and had the experience to back it up.”