Stetson Graduate Balances Careers as Attorney and FIFA Soccer Referee

Christina Unkel

Christina Unkel ’12 is one of only seven women officials in the U.S. who represent the U.S. Soccer Federation at the highest international levels.

By Brian K. Vandervliet

When Christina Unkel ’12 began refereeing soccer games as a 10-year-old, she couldn’t have known her skills would someday allow her to be paid to make crucial, split-second calls in premiere soccer games around the world. Her motivation, at that time, was simpler.

“I could ref two games and make $40 and have all the concession stand food you could want,” said Unkel. “For me, it was kind of a no brainer. It was something where I could play and practice soccer and then on my off-days referee. I ended up falling in love with it.”

Today, that love for “the beautiful game” and talent for officiating has earned her a spot as a FIFA referee and as one of only seven women officials in the U.S. who represent the U.S. Soccer Federation at the highest international levels. Since being named to FIFA’s panel in January 2013, she has officiated women’s soccer tournaments in Jamaica, British Virgin Islands, China and Mexico.

One of her most significant international games so far, Unkel said, was the opening game in the CONCACAF Women’s U-17 tournament in Jamaica. Unkel, now 27, described feeling goosebumps when leading players from Mexico and Haiti onto the field and hearing the FIFA International Soccer anthem.

“For me, it’s always the introductions that get me and kind of put me back into place and make me realize where I am and what’s going on,” she said.

For Unkel, there has almost always been a lot going on. During her 1L year at Stetson University College of Law, she was sidelined from having torn her ACL as a senior collegiate player at Palm Beach Atlantic University. By her second year of law school, Unkel recovered and began traveling nearly every weekend to officiate NCAA Division I and women’s professional soccer games.
Christina Unkel
“I would go to school, then on Friday afternoons I would fly out to some place and do a game and then fly back on Sunday evening to go back to school on Monday,” said Unkel, who officiated more than 80 games while at Stetson, in addition to serving on the moot court and alternative dispute resolution boards.

Today, Unkel is an attorney in Sarasota at the law firm Maglio, Christopher & Toale, and her workload and travel schedule remain as hectic as her law school days. She speaks of finding balance between officiating and the law, and how she has found many similarities between them both.

“It’s important to think in that perspective where you can take a step back and look at entire situations — and not just the trees but also the forest,” said Unkel. “I really feel like law school has significantly helped me with doing that — and not just with my law career and refereeing, but also in life.”

At Stetson, Unkel earned a certificate of concentration in advocacy, and she fondly remembers the practical lessons learned. Professors such as Stephanie Vaughan and Joseph Morrissey stressed the importance of professionalism, presentation, attention to details, and other skills applicable both in the court and on the field.

“So we speak of advocacy skills as not just being the best advocate for your client, but also understanding what role and which mask you put on,” said Unkel. “At certain times, you have to be passive, sometimes you have to be aggressive, sometimes you have to be neutral, and that’s kind of the same thing with refereeing.”

As a second-year FIFA referee, Unkel said that she is grateful for the opportunities that she’s had and looks forward to future appointments. Last fall, she was selected for the final of the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, Mexico, in what was her first role as head referee in an international final. She hopes to one day represent the United States at a future FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympics.

“You just have to continue to perform, go to tournaments, and make sure you do well both on and off the field,” said Unkel.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 Stetson Lawyer magazine.