On the Field, Sarah Thomas is Just One of the Refs

In the 1990s, Sarah Thomas accompanied her brother to a meeting for aspiring football officials. Although she was warned at the time that it would be attended by “a bunch of old men” and that she might “get some strange stares,” she went anyway and later conceded that that indeed did happen. But getting looked at funny did not change her passion for the game. Fast forwarding to 1996, Thomas began her career as a football referee, starting at the high school level—she became the first female to officiate a Division 1-A game in her home state of Mississippi.  

Nearly two decades after her first foray into officiating, Thomas has been hired by the NFL as the only female referee out of ten new officials. When the 2015 season starts, she will be a line judge in NFL games, meaning she will make calls at the line of scrimmage.  

Thomas is not the first woman to officiate in the league—Shannon Eastin was a replacement referee during the 2012 lockout and is the first female to make calls in an NFL game. Thomas, however, is the first permanent official to be hired by the league and assigned to a regular crew.  

Making it to the top level of her profession and forging history along the way have resulted in Thomas being deemed a “pioneer” and“trailblazer.” Despite these titles, Thomas herself showcases a degree of gender blindness.  

“I'm a female, and I can't change that. Just because I love the game of football and officiating, I do honor the fact that a lot of people consider me a trailblazer. But as far as being forced into a trailblazer role ... I don't feel that way," Thomas said. "I've just been doing it truly because I love it. When you're out there officiating, the guys don't think of me as a female. I mean, they want me to be just like them — just be an official — and that's what I've always set out to do."  

Being a successful female in a sport that is dominated by males both on and off the field has inevitably led to the questioning of Thomas’s own opinions on her role in the NFL Thomas’s view of herself as first and foremost an official, however, is an attitude that she has had throughout her career. As a result, she does not indulge reporters with drawn out discussions about the difficulty of making it as a female referee in the NFL—she talks about the struggles that all refs go through.  

"I don't try to be one of the guys,”Thomas said. I am a female, but I don't look at myself as just a female. I look at myself as an official. With their respect and the respect that I have for them, it just doesn't feel like it's a male-dominated profession."  

Thomas started off officiating high school-level games,slowly working her way up to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, then pre season match-ups, then the NFL development league for referees, and finally the NFL. That is not just an impressive feat considering she is a woman, but also a trajectory that thousands of other refs of both genders wish to replicate. 

In a world that is becoming increasingly aware of gender inequality and disparities between males and females, Thomas is seen as a step in the right direction for the hiring of more female referees in all major sports. Ultimately, however, Thomas does not see herself as a symbol of solely female capability. She was picked to work in the league not because she is a woman, but due to her qualifications and experience. By not stressing her gender along the way lends even more credibility to her skills as a referee and overall feel for the game. She is an official, who just so happens to be a woman.

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