NFL's 1st Female Official, Sarah Thomas, Broke Barriers Simply by Doing Her Job

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 7, 2015

USA Today

Sarah Thomas didn't seek a barrier to break or leap over. And being noticed isn't high on her list of priorities.

Now she's about to bust down a wall. She'll get noticed too because that's what happens when you make history.

Thomas will reportedly be named the NFL's first full-time regular-season official. The league hasn't formally announced her hiring yet, though Sports Illustrated's Peter King called the groundbreaking move "a lock."

Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun first reported the news Friday.

There's a temptation to see this through the lens of NFL optics. The league desperately needs a win with its female audience after a particularly horrendous year on the public relations front (see: Greg Hardy, Ray Rice and Ray McDonald).

The instinct to reach for skepticism is understandable, and it's one Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Sen'Derrick Marks landed on right away. He told TMZ.com Thomas' hiring is another publicity move, and a sign the league is "all about monopolizing every opportunity."

But Thomas isn't some sort of ceremonial olive branch. Her rise points to an organic movement culminating in a historic first, and any poor timing feels coincidental.

She's been waiting, she's qualified and now she's reportedly (and finally) been hired.

"There's not a single official in the NFL that's surprised by this," former director of officials Mike Pereira told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. "They knew it was coming. I was almost surprised it didn't happen last year."

Thomas at Browns minicamp in 2014
Thomas at Browns minicamp in 2014Mark Duncan/Associated Press

In 2013 Thomas, previously an official in college football and for the United Football League, was among 21 finalists for an NFL officiating position. She reached that shortlist consideration after working preseason games as a line judge and roaming the field at New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns minicamp practices.

Little changed for Thomas during her exposure to a brand of football with far more speed and intricate calls that have to be made amid chaos. She was an official who happened to be a woman rather than a female official.

"She did a good job. She was calling everything," said Browns cornerback Joe Haden in June 2014 after Thomas patrolled the team's minicamp practices, per Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "I couldn't snap on her. I was chilling."

How she arrived on the same field as Haden is typical in the best way possible. While a woman in that familiar zebra uniform may have led to some double takes simply because it goes against the norm, from the start Thomas' gender mattered little.

"I am a female, but I don't look at myself as just a female," she told Reed. "I look at myself as an official."

The Mississippi native who attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship worked hard, honed her craft and was rewarded with promotions up the officiating ranks.

How exactly do you make the doubts associated with those curious looks fade? By taking the rulebook and digesting it. That process started when she attended a Gulf Coast Football Officials Association meeting in 1996 with her brother.

"She didn't pout; she just wanted to get better," said her instructor, George Nash, during an ESPN Outside the Lines feature in 2011. "Every time she made a mistake, it was a one-time thing."

Thomas never played football at any level, which made the challenge of learning the game's nuanced rulebook—and being able to spot infractions during the whirlwind of real-time action—even more difficult.

Yet there she was on a high school field in 1999, working her first game. Long blond hair was tucked into her hat in what's become a trademark look, one that doubles as a way to avoid drawing attention and to blend in with the game scenery.

In 2006 Thomas nearly hung up her whistle with a career in pharmaceutical sales taking off. Then she ended up on Gerry Austin's radar.

Austin was an NFL official for 25 years, and after retiring he moved on to become the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA. His phone rang one day, which led to this exchange with one of Austins scouts, Joe Haynes (via Farmer):

"Gerry," Haynes said, "I've got a high school official down here in Mississippi that you need to take a look at, somebody who's ready for college football."

"What's his name?" Austin recalled asking.

"His name is Sarah."

Austin invited Thomas to an officiating camp in Reno, Nevada, and she stood out immediately.

"I thought she was very football savvy," Austin said during a phone conversation with Bleacher Report when asked about his first impression of Thomas. "She had a good knowledge of the responsibilities of an official to manage a game."

For Austin, it was clear Thomas had two core characteristics of a quality official: knowledge of the rules and, perhaps more importantly, an understanding of how to apply them.

There’s a feel for football that goes beyond the rulebook, and it has to become second nature.

"You don't want to give someone a ticket when they're driving 58 in a 55," said Austin. "If you're driving 68 you understand why you got a ticket.

"It works the same way in football. Just because you grab somebody, that doesn't mean it's holding. You want to see a demonstration of restriction. She had that kind of knowledge."

When Thomas went to Reno she was among 17 other officials. Compared to those peers, Austin put her in the top three, even without any college experience yet.

So in 2007 he scheduled her to work two Conference USA games. She became the first woman to officiate a major college football game.

"One coach said she officiated like a veteran," said Austin. "I never had any doubt from that point on she could officiate college football, or football at any level."

Thomas at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2009
Thomas at the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2009Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Then by 2009 Austin elevated her to full-time status. The promotion culminated with Thomas called on to work that year's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

She was the first woman to officiate a college bowl game, and with her next stop Thomas will plow through the doors Shannon Eastin pried open when she was among the replacement referees in 2012 during the officiating lockout. Eastin's first was still significant, but it was also temporary. Thomas' NFL first will be of the full-time variety.

She's making the sort of history that gets recognition beyond football.

"Whether she wants it or not there will be some pressure for her to be successful, and to open the door for other female officials," Austin said. "I'm fully confident she'll do that."

As with any official jumping from college football to the NFL, there's often concern about adjusting to an even faster game speed. But concentration will trump speed at any level.

"It's a matter of your ability to concentrate for 185 plays a game for those seven-second bursts," said Austin. "If you have the ability to concentrate, then you see the game in slow motion."

Thomas has demonstrated that skill. Now her goal is simple: Be a footnote, and get noticed by going unnoticed. An official has likely failed if he or she becomes part of the game story, especially a line judge who's typically not given the same TV time as, say, Ed Hochuli's arms.

When she accomplishes her goal, she will have done more than jump over a barrier. Thomas will keep the gates open for those who follow.

And there are plenty of potential followers. In addition to Thomas, Maia Chaka also officiated an NFL preseason game in 2014.

The league launched Women Officiating Now (WON) as part of its Football Officiating Academy in 2013. That year a majority-female crew refereed a Division II game, and in September 2014 Catherine Conti became the first woman to officiate a Big 12 game.

Prior to Conti's first appearance on a Big 12 field, conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby's comments sounded a lot like the words spoken now by Thomas or previously by Austin.

"She is not out there because she is female," he said, per Graham Watson of Yahoo Sports. "She is there because she has paid her dues and she's a really outstanding football official."

Catherine Conti made her Big 12 debut in 2014.
Catherine Conti made her Big 12 debut in 2014.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That was essentially Thomas' message on a spring day in 2013 while speaking to Jane McManus of ESPN.com. She's following a passion, and after excelling at it, the next logical step is reaching the peak of football officiating.

"I never set out to be the first and that hasn't changed," Thomas said to McManus. "I do this because I love it."

She said that after speaking to 50 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 during WON's first clinic. Suddenly for those young minds, being an NFL official seemed possible, a feeling that will grow when Thomas is on a field in September.

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