College football finally caught up to the rest of society and named Sarah Thomas and Maia Chaka as the first women to officiate an FBS game. This week the NCAA announced that Thomas will be a line judge, and Chaka will be the head linesman at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl between BYU and Washington on Dec. 27 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
While both women are making history, Thomas is the name that has attracted the attention of the NFL. Thomas, who once refereed high school football games while she was pregnant, not only personifies the toughness needed to handle such a high-pressure job, but also has leadership and skills that she uses everyday in raising two young boys and an infant, while also working full-time in pharmaceutical sales for Bagsvaerd.
Since the inaugural NFL season in 1920, there has never been a permanent female official. Word on the NFL streets is, come 2014, the 39-year-old referee will become the first female permanent game official in the National Football League.
“Sarah’s at the top of our scouting program,” Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, told HuffingtonPost.com. “Now we’re taking an even closer look as part of this developmental program to see who distinguishes themselves and give them a taste of the NFL speed, rules and mechanics.”
The NFL’s always a bit slow on the racial diversity issues. 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.
Ironically, Thomas’ unprecedented opportunity was a destiny-driven result of being discriminated against athletically.Thomas was a 23-year-old ex-college basketball player when she was thrown off a church-league team in Mississippi because she was female. To stay in touch with sports, she joined her older brother at a Gulf Coast Football Officials Association meeting. The rest is history.
The Pascagoula, Mississippi native toppled every obstacle thrown her way and aced the necessary protocol to be considered for permanent appointment as an NFL referee. Thomas is a barrier-breaker in every sense, a powerful mixture of brains, beauty and brawn to match. A true representative of the “new” millennium woman, juggling her traditional tasks but also pushing the limits of her talent and abilities to high status in her particular craft.
After becoming the first female to officiate a Division 1-A high school football game in Mississippi in 1996, Thomas became the first female referee in major college football in 2007. Two years later, Thomas was the first woman to officiate a bowl game during the 2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. She was a line judge during the game between Marshall and Ohio. In 2011, she became the first female official to work in a Big Ten stadium.
In August she took that next leap into primetime action, working Saints’ practice and also working at the Colts' mini-camp, officiating scrimmages earlier this offseason, as part of the National Football League's Officiating Development Program. The program identifies top-level officials with NFL potential and seeks to perfect their abilities through a series of on and off-the-field training programs. The most advanced officials in the program, like Thomas, are considered finalists for NFL openings when they arise.
During the NFL officials' lockout last season, Shannon Eastin, a lower-tier member of the program, became the first female official to take the field when she worked an exhibition game, but Thomas will be the real deal and NFL certified when she steps out on that grass for the first time next season.
Both ladies seem to have started a trend. Earlier this year a Division II game between Miles College and Lane had four female officials, making it the first NCAA game with a majority-female officiating crew.
Although she's a football official, Thomas' first passions were softball and basketball. She totally grasps the esoteric nature of gladiator sports and competition. She was the first athlete at her high school to letter five times in a sport (softball) and attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship.
It appears she’s destined to be the Danica Patrick of referees. And not a moment too soon for a football culture that has been criticized of late for its barbaric, insensitive and predatory locker room culture, including glaring flaws concerning the biased hiring practices of leadership roles within the league.
The National Basketball Association has used female referees since 1997, when Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired. Major League Baseball has never had a woman umpire and needs to get with the program, too. Integrating umpiring would have been something MLB Commissioner Bud Selig could have attached to his lasting legacy, rather than trying to shape the Steroids Era to make himself look oblivious to the epidemic.
Thomas, however, faces her challenges head on. After 10 years in the game and three kids, the supermom almost hung up her striped suit in 2006. But on her way out, she grabbed the eye of Gerald Austin, an NFL official for more than 25 years who is now the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA. He couldn't let a talent like Thomas give up regulating the NFL trenches to play soccer mom all day.
“She made one tough call after another and nailed every one of them,” Austin recalled. “There was no reason not to hire her.”
Thomas, who says she didn’t even know there were no women officials when she embarked on this journey, is as humble as she is decisive, and she's never intimidated on the field.
“I didn’t set out to break a glass ceiling or a gender barrier,” Thomas told Bloomberg in July. “If you’re doing things because you love them, then things have a tendency to just kind of fall into place.”
Thomas isn’t Jackie Robinson, but she has a serious habit of being first when it comes to being a football official. And as a woman, it’s inevitable she will initially be judged more critically than her male counterparts. The cameras and media spotlight will be glaring on her long, sandy blonde hair every time she misses a hold or calls a questionable pass interference. It definitely can’t be a bad look for NFL marketing big wigs to have an official that’s as dime piece as any of the team’s cheerleaders, but good looks isn't what's gotten her to the threshold of women's history. After she wets her feet with a couple of critical calls, even the uniqueness of her sex appeal will dwindle, and Thomas will do as she’s always done, just blend into the scenery as one of the best refs in the business.