It was your typical college football game, this one being in Conference USA. A line judge was hearing the normal abuse. "You’re blind." "Dumb zebra." The varying expletives. All of it.
But one particular insult caught the official’s attention. “Hey, you suck,” the official heard from a screaming fan. “Bring the girl back.”
“The girl” was Sarah Thomas, who had officiated a game on the same field the week before her male counterpart.
She laughs as she recounts the story, showing no indication of stress despite being on the verge of splintering one of the last glass ceilings in the professional sports world.
Since the inaugural NFL season in 1920, there has never been a permanent female official. That will likely change next season, as sources tell Bleacher Report that Thomas is nearly a lock to begin officiating NFL games in 2014.
This isn't a publicity stunt or a flaccid attempt at political correctness. This is a league genuinely diversifying itself with an official who just happens to be a woman. Good for it. It's about time.
Thomas' impending hire is just a continuation of the league's decades-long effort to broaden its base of game officials. When she takes the field next season, it will be almost 50 years since the league hired its first black game official, Burl Toler, in 1965.
Just five years ago, Mike Carey became the first African-American to referee a Super Bowl. The league appointed its first Latino referee, Alberto Riveron, in 2008.
The position of game official has become extremely prominent in the television age. Ed Hochuli’s right bicep has its own Twitter account, proving some refs have a level of popularity that rival even the league's own players.
Thomas is a unique draw, but while her gender is the reason she's getting so much attention, she remains one of the more qualified candidates the league has seen in a long time.
“She’s a natural,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “One of the things we look for in young officials is, are they intimidated on the field? She is not. She has all the characteristics we want in an official.
“Sarah is in a unique position, obviously, but she will be defined by the calls she makes on the field. Just like every other official.”
“People who know who I am understand this is something I've wanted to do for a long time,” Thomas said. “They know how serious I am and how dedicated I am to this job. I put as much effort into this as anyone.”
Thomas says she’s experienced no discrimination of any kind from other officials or players as she has worked NFL camps. In New Orleans, she received cheers from fans. “As for the players,” she said, “they just don’t seem to care.”
The question is: Will it stay that way? Will players or fans or even coaches troll her if she makes a call they don’t like?
When Toler would sometimes walk onto the field before games in the 1960s, he would have to stand between his white counterparts to avoid having objects thrown at him by bigoted fans.
“He was never one to come home and complain about what people would say,” Toler’s son, Burl Jr., told The Washington Post in 2008. “But I know he kind of—without boasting about it or expressing it—there were some issues with fans. Number one, they don’t like referees. Being a black referee was a double whammy.”
There is no true predecessor to Thomas, but there was another woman football pioneer who made similar news. Katie Hnida was the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A football game, doing so as a kicker for the University of New Mexico in 2003. Hnida started her career at Colorado but left the program after allegedly facing verbal and physical abuse from teammates.
Hnida says things have changed for the better since her experiences, but she still believes Thomas will face some adversity.
“There is still a minority that feel the football field (and locker rooms) should be men only,” she wrote in an email. “But despite my experience at CU, I think most guys are ready for it. I had a phenomenal experience at New Mexico, along with a handful of semi-pro and arena teams.
“All that being said, I am sure Sarah will get a rude comment or two that relate to her gender, particularly if she makes a call a player is unhappy with. I'm sure she has dealt with that on occasion before and will be ready. And of course the Internet will be filled with all sorts of ridiculousness...”
Thomas was discovered by an NFL scout. Admittedly, he had some difficulty explaining Thomas' unique situation to former official Gerald Austin over the phone:
“I have an official you should look at,” the scout told Austin.
“What’s his name?” Austin said.
“His name is Sarah.”
“Yeah,” the scout explained. “He’s a she.”
“I started officiating 17 years ago,” Thomas said. “I had no idea there were no females officiating in the NFL. That’s not what I set out to do. I just wanted to be a good official.”
Her background is impressive. Only years after her career got off the ground in 1996, she became the first female official of a Division I-A college football game. Years later, she became the first to officiate a bowl game.
She’s done just about everything on every level—except the NFL. But that should change. And soon.