Jen Mueller is navigating the world of sports media and football officiating, a double whammy for a woman in a male-dominated world. With a perfectionist's mentality, she has become reliable in both fields.
It’s hard to know what to call Jen Mueller. Labeling her is like trying to pack open umbrellas into a cardboard box. She’s a broadcast journalist, a reporter and producer for FSN Northwest. She’s a high-school football official. She’s the organist at her church and teaches piano lessons once a week.
“Around the FSN office, people know me more for my rum cake,” Mueller said, laughing.
I called her a Renaissance woman. She seemed unimpressed by the tag.
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“Is that a nicer way of calling me a busybody?” Mueller wondered in retort.
Her mother, Anita Mueller, offered a more apt description.
“She’s kind of a smorgasbord of surprises and delights,” her mother said.
Her family worries her life is too crammed, but that’s always been the case. Her mother recalls her daughter’s childhood. During nap time in kindergarten, she would help her teacher sweep the floors and change the music while her classmates slept. As a teenage baby-sitter, she wowed the kids by bringing crafts and games with her, planning activities instead of watching television while the kids played.
It probably takes a dynamo to succeed in a sports world full of piggish stereotypes. True to her overachieving manner, Mueller picked perhaps the two toughest fields for a woman to gain legitimacy.
Many male athletes and fans still evaluate female reporters more on their looks than their journalistic skills. And in officiating, the ultimate thankless job, appreciation is a myth, along with misplaced concern about whether women referees can keep up.
With a perfectionist mentality, Mueller has become reliable in both fields. She’s a versatile asset at FSN, and she’s a solid, midlevel official.
Referees have a peer-evaluating system in the Pacific Northwest Football Officials Association. Varsity officials are rated on three levels: V1 (the highest), V2, V3. Mueller is currently a V2.
“She’s a pretty good official,” said Michael Livingston, the association’s vice president. “She’s very passionate about football. She has great football knowledge. Once you’re out on the field and you’re wearing the stripes, you’re not a man or a woman. You’re just another official on the field playing as a team.”
It took a while to gain that acceptance. Mueller grew up in Texas, a very potent and particular football state. She became interested in officiating while in college at Southern Methodist University and wound up being a nationally recognized flag football ref.
Later, she joined a chapter of football officials in Dallas, learned the skills needed to oversee a tackle football game and began officiating subvarsity games. She remembers going to one Texas school, where one man always pulled pranks on her, trying to keep her from signing in to do her game.
One night, he looked at her and said, “What are you doing out there? Why are you not cooking and cleaning at home?”
Mueller’s response was quick, deft and forceful.
“I’ve already done that, bud,” she said.
Since moving to Washington, she hasn’t encountered any direct discrimination. Her greatest challenge now might be handling the two-pronged burden of being a media member and an official. Luckily, she’s too busy to worry about a lack of dinner-party invitations.
“I’m a very unpopular person a lot of times,” Mueller said. “I think you have to be a little bit crazy to do both jobs.”
Because of her unassuming and professional approach, Mueller, 30, has been able to transcend the norms for women — and men — in sports media. Her officiating background helps her ask different questions, more insider questions, which often helps her gain the trust of football players. She studies game film. She appreciates the minutia of the game more than most reporters, who tend to focus on overarching themes.
I asked whether she embraced being a female in sports. Her answer was typical Mueller — atypical, unrestrained.
“Of course, I want to be seen as an equal, but if I say that, then I lose some of the perspective that you get as a female,” she said. “You can be a little bit more sensitive in stories. You are going to remember me differently. People are going to remember the only female that worked a football game. And if that gets me in the door for something else, then that’s great. Then it’s my job to prove that I belong there once I get the opportunity.”
The answer was fitting for a woman who resists boundaries and labels. What do you call her? After mentioning her daughter is also skilled at sewing, Anita Mueller had another description.
“She’s an adventurist,” the mother said.
At the same time, she remembered her daughter doesn’t like riding scooters and fears fireworks that she must light in her hands. So she’s not exactly an Indiana Jones clone.
Then again, Indiana Jones never dared to referee high-school football.