The NFL hasn't given women much to cheer about, but at least there's finally some positive news: the league just hired referee Sarah Thomas as a full-time official. She will be the first woman in NFL history to serve as a full-time official. Thomas is already accustomed to bucking tradition: The 41-year-old began officiating college football games in Conference USA in 2007, when she was also the only woman donning the striped black-and-white referee uniform.
In 2009, she became the first female referee to officiate a college football bowl, serving as an official at the (now defunct) Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio universities. She also holds the honor of being the first woman to officiate a football game in a Big Ten stadium.
Previously, Thomas officiated NFL minicamp practice games for the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Browns. However, she was kept mostly on the sidelines, save for a 2013 preseason game where she served as a line judge. Now, Thomas is truly hitting the big leagues, joining the NFL as a full-time line judge for the 2015 season. According to NFL.com, she was hired on Wednesday alongside eight other officials who are also making their full-time debut with the NFL.
"Our incoming officials have all demonstrated that they are among the best in college football," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Wednesday in a statement. "We are excited about having them join us."
According to an NFL memo, Thomas will not be the first female official to work a regular-season NFL game. That honor goes to Shannon Eastin, who served as a line judge in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the first three games of the 2012 NFL season. However, Eastin was just a replacement official, never having been assigned to a full-time officiating crew.
Does hiring Thomas mean the grass-stained ceiling is broken? Hardly — Thomas is still very much an anomaly in the world of professional football officiating. In 2014, Thomas was one of just two women in the NFL's Officiating Development Program.
It's not like football officiating is such an easy job to get — the NFL employs just 119 full-time officials each season, and has an applicant pool of about 2,000 officials at the local and collegiate levels. But the NFL does have an initiative to broaden their officiating talent, including Women Officiating Now (WON), a program focused exclusively on developing and training female officials. The NFL launched WON in 2013 as part of the Football Officiating Academy (FOA).
According to the NFL, WON holds clinics where women of all backgrounds and skill levels can "learn the basics of football, the fundamentals of officiating and leadership skills that are useful on and off the field," according to the program's description. "Top" performers at the clinic have the opportunity of joining the Officiating Development Program.
"The NFL believes in diversity and inclusion — and it starts here," WON Program Director Vanessa Siverls-Streater says in a statement on the program's website.
Seeing women like Thomas in the iconic black-and-white stripes during regular-season games won't become the norm just yet, but it seems like people are already becoming more accustomed to a female presence on the football field, particularly at the collegiate level. Just last summer, the Big 12 Conference assigned its first female official, Catherine "Cat" Conti, to work a regular-season game. At the time, Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Conti was tapped for the game because she's "just a darned good official," according to the Associated Press.
That sentiment — "a darned good official" — seems like it also holds true for Thomas. And if it does, she just might continue to climb through the ranks to that coveted referee spot — the highest-ranking officiating position in the NFL.
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