The upcoming showdown between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles will also mark the 52nd time that there's been no female referee at a Super Bowl. In 2018, there's one woman out there who could have taken that job on, though — Sarah Thomas, the only female referee in the NFL. The referee job for Super Bowl 52 went to Gene Steratore, but Thomas is still blazing trails in the NFL.
Thomas made headlines when she made NFL history in 2015 as the league's first female referee, but she has been a football referee for more than two decades. According to sports news website SB Nation, Thomas first decided to become a referee when her brother was on her way to a football officials' meeting. She asked him if girls could officiate, too, and soon afterward, she attended her very first meeting. After that, she refereed high school games for 10 years and college games for eight before becoming an NFL referee.
Last year, Thomas told Bustle that as a woman, she routinely faced skepticism from the schools where she refereed. Thomas did not let this get to her, however; instead, she applied her general outlook on life to football. "You start at the bottom and you work your way up," she said.
Before becoming a football referee, Thomas hadn't actually played the sport herself. She used to play basketball, and she once told NFL AM that she can't consider herself a "pioneer" after seeing lots of women referee basketball games:
I set out to do this and get involved in officiating not having any idea that there were not any females officiating football. Being a former basketball player, you saw females officiating all the time. So no, I don’t feel like a pioneer — but I'm just fortunate to be here.
Even if she wouldn't describe herself as a pioneer, Thomas has certainly shattered many barriers — even before joining the NFL. The Los Angeles Times reported that in 2007, she became the first woman to referee a major college football game when Memphis and Jacksonville State went head to head. Then in 2009, she became the first woman to officiate a bowl game when she worked the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Thomas was also able to share a historic moment with another NFL trailblazer. Shortly after it was announced that she would become an NFL referee, Thomas met with Jen Welter — the NFL's first female assistant coach — on the field before a preseason game in 2015.
Last year, Thomas told SB Nation that it was important for a major organization like the NFL to break a gender barrier by hiring a female referee. But the wheels for this change were in motion years before Thomas was hired. In 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first woman to referee an NFL game, although she did so in a temporary, nonunion capacity. And in 2013, Thomas was actually a finalist for an NFL officiating position, though she didn't get the call from Dean Blandino — the NFL's former vice president of officiating — until two years later.
When Thomas was finally hired, Blandino told NFL.com that he expected another female referee to be hired soon, and he noted that the NFL was already interested in 10 to 15 women who were officiating around the country.
"I don't want Sarah to come in and us to be waiting 10 years for another female official," Blandino said in 2015.
Thomas may not have been appointed as the referee for the 52nd Super Bowl, but she has worked hard to create new possibilities for other women officiating football, and it's growing more and more likely that she won't be the lone female referee in the NFL much longer.