While the NFL has seen women make an impact in its game, Amy Trask of the Raiders was the first female executive in NFL football, Nicole Zaloumis hosts the NFL Network’s morning show, women on the field of play is still a rarity. Despite the hope that one day women can compete as field goal kickers, only one woman has ever served as an NFL referee.
In 2012, Shannon Eastin was hired as a temporary non-union official during the NFL’s infamous referee lockout. Prior to the launch of the 2013 NFL season, Sarah Thomas from Brandon, Mississippi emerged as one of 21 finalists for a permanent NFL officiating position.
Having already worked scrimmages for the New Orleans Saints, which has attracted huge throngs of media, she is part of the NFL’s officiating development program. Of note, she did spend three days at the Indianapolis Colts minicamps.
The 40 year-old referee and mother of three is hoping to be the first permanent female referee in NFL history. Prior to her football ambitions, she competed on the hardcourt, earning a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile, where she was named an Academic All-American. When not on the gridiron, Thomas works as a pharmaceutical representative.
Her first brush as a football referee came in 1996 when she was only 23 years old. Having made history as the first female to officiate a Division 1-A high school football game (in her native of Mississippi), her next break followed ten years later as former NFL referee Gerry Austin invited her to a camp for officials. In 2007, she would be hired for the Conference USA officiating staff. Her first game at the Conference USA level involved Memphis and Jacksonville State.
After the 2009 season, Thomas would continue her remarkable officiating legacy. At the Little Caesar’s Bowl between Marshall and Ohio, she became the first female to officiate in a bowl game. Stints in the Senior Bowl would follow for the titanic Thomas. From there, her reputation as a respected and competent official only grew.
In 2010, she was part of the officiating staff for the United Football League’s championship game. The experience was enhanced by the fact that Anita Marks, one of the most popular female quarterbacks ever, was part of the broadcasting crew for the UFL.
One of the great pinnacles in her collegiate career would come on November 12, 2011. The University of Northwestern hosted Rice University and with Thomas on the officiating crew, it marked the first time that a female officiated in a Big Ten stadium.
While the next phase in her groundbreaking journey is to become a member of the NFL’s officiating team, she has worked with the Saints at training camps since 2006 and certainly paid her dues. Although the national media interest in 2013 resulted in the Saints having had to move some of their training camp scrimmages indoors, Thomas has earned the respect and trust of Saints players and coaches. If she were to one day be the first female official in the Super Bowl, it would represent a tremendous impact in the growth of women in football.
Part of a field of 21 candidates for one coaching job, there is no question that there will be unprecedented interest in a referee being hired. Seeing how the NBA has already employed Violet Palmer, it is time for the NFL to follow in their legacy. As the NHL and MLB have not yet had female officials, it is a position whose time has come. The next step for Thomas would not only make sports history but exemplify how women have continued to shatter the glass ceiling of men’s sports.