Sarah Thomas makes NFL history as first female referee

Steve Brenner

There will be a time when the hiring of female officials and coaches will be considered the norm.

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Soccer and tennis already have a lot of previous. Andy Murray’s decision to employ French coach Amelie Mauresmo last year reignited a whole new debate about men being coached by women. Sian Massey-Ellis, meanwhile, has been an assistant referee in the English Premier League since 2010.

The San Antonio Spurs broke the trend recently when former USA international Becky Hammon was appointed onto the coaching staff in what was seen as a monumental move by the reigning champions.

Yet in the NFL, one of the most macho, male-dominated sporting leagues of them all, the announcement that Sarah Thomas (below, right), a mother of three, will be a line judge starting next season has been seen as an encouraging and a radical step forward in the battle for gender equality.

Thomas has been officiating for the last 20 years in high school and college football, ensuring her entrance into big time will be accompanied with a wealth of experience.

Shannon Eastin became the first woman to work a regular NFL season game during the 2012 referee lockout but Thomas, who will continue working as a representative for a pharmaceutical company, became the first woman to officiate an NCAA match in 2007. Two years later she was one of five female officials in major college football.

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Her recruitment by the NFL is a huge breakthrough, a much-needed feel good story in a close season which has already been blighted by enough sordid tales of misbehavior to last three lifetimes.

With domestic violence cases occurring with mind-numbing regularity, embracing women into the game is vital in the battle to claw back some integrity.

Some players believe her promotion is a publicity stunt. You wouldn’t put anything past commissioner Roger Goodell, yet this can only be seen as a positive move, not a reactionary one.

Certainly, the courage and conviction shown by the 41-year-old to follow her dreams should be commended and used as a template for women throughout the world.

“I’m a female, and I can’t change that. Just because I love the game of football and officiating, I do honour the fact that a lot of people consider me a trailblazer,” said Thomas.

“But as far as being forced into a trailblazer role... I don’t feel that way. I’ve just been doing it truly because I love it.”

Becky Hammon (l), pictured with Tony Parker, was appointed to the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff in the summer.
Becky Hammon (l), pictured with Tony Parker, was appointed to the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff in the summer.

This appointment was no flash in the pan. The NFL have long been aware of Thomas’ expertise. She’s shadowed colleagues for the past two years during the off-season to ensure no stone was left unturned.

“If you look at Sarah’s background and her journey to get here, this is not something that happened overnight. She’s been on our radar screen for eight-nine years,” NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said.

The line of scrimmage will be her focus point so her speed and reactions need to be top notch. Thomas has already been receiving warm welcomes.

“Get these guys straightened out, get some gals in there,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after encountering the Mississippi native in a pre-season game last year.

“She’s a good ref. So it was a good choice.’’

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While the move by the Spurs in the NBA was heralded by the WNBA and its players, there is no such correlation in the NFL. That’s not to say the game is a closed shop for women.

Far from it. Although Thomas will remain the only woman officiating next season, there are 15 more in the pipeline who will attempt to break through in the next couple of years.

There will be tough moments. Sexism remains a problem in society which will not be eradica-ted with the promotion of women to the male dominated world of American football. No matter.

Thomas is relishing setting out her stall. “I just say this, don’t go out to try to prove somebody wrong,” she added.

“Go and do things, whether you’re female or male, black or white, just do it because you believe in yourself and you know you’re there to do the job.”

With more females working in the NCAA, how long will it be before the NFL coaching system’s glass ceiling is destroyed once and for all?

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