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NFL’s First-Ever Female Referee: Sarah Thomas Makes History

Heather Suhr
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There’s a first for everything, and we get excited to see uplifting changes in the world. On April 8, 2015 the National Football League (NFL) officially announced that Sarah Thomas would be the first full-time female official in NFL history. (1)

For the love of sports, nothing can stop Sarah Thomas

As a well-rounded athlete for most of her life, Thomas was a softball star in high school and an academic all-American in college basketball. Upon graduation from the University of Mobile Alabama, she continued her athletic endeavors by participating in a local men’s basketball church league until the pastor dismissed her from the team. (2)

Nothing stopped Thomas from her love of sports. Her brother, Lea Bailey, invited her along to his football meeting for officials one day and from that point on she became intrigued. “I said, ‘Can girls do that?'” she told USA Today last year. “Lea said, ‘I guess so.'” (2,3)

She was warned it would be her and a bunch of old men, but she wasn’t bothered. By now, she was used to being in sport spaces dominated by men. “I always just played with the boys,” she said. (2) Despite the challenges, she pressed on to pursue the official referee career.

Building up a strong credibility base as a referee official

Thomas’ first officiating experience was for the high school boy’s football team almost 20 years ago. She built on her credibility and moved up in the football ranks. In 2007 she was able to officiate for the top college football games, and in 2009 she became the first woman to work in a bowl game. By 2013 she earned a spot among twenty finalists for the highest-ranking job in football: the NFL. (4)

In Thomas’ 2015 interview with CBS News, she said, “I know a lot of females are maybe inspired that there’s a gender-barrier about to be broken. But I never set out to shatter the glass ceiling.” (5) In the history of her life, that wouldn’t be the first time she’d face that challenge, and won.

Reports: NFL hires first full-time female referee

Aside from being a part time referee official, Thomas worked as a pharmaceuticals sales rep. In 2006, she almost considered giving up her whistle to focus more on her career, but as her sons were getting older and playing in playoff and all-star games, she knew she couldn’t miss out. (2,6)

One thing led to another and she got a call from Gerald Austin, a former NFL referee who now oversaw officials for Conference USA, the college sports subdivision.  Austin wanted her to attend training camp. She did, and passed with flying colors. (2)

As fate would have it, the NFL was ready to bring more diversity into the program. “Obviously with the timing of it — we feel she’s ready to come into the league,” NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino said. (7)

Sarah Thomas… Best wishes to you in your new 2015 NFL officiating career! Go get ’em!

Sources for this article include:
(1) en.wikipedia.org
(2) www.washingtonpost.com
(3) www.hattiesburgamerican.com
(4) www.upworthy.com
(5) www.cbsnews.com
(6) www.deseretnews.com
(7) www.huffingtonpost.com

Image source: www.nflplayerengagement.com

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