On Sunday night, Super Bowl LI was watched by millions of people across the country. Even if you're not a football fan, you don't need to know anything about the NFL to know that all the referees out on the field were men. In fact, until 2015, there were only male referees in the NFL. Not a single woman had ever broken into the field — that is, until Sarah Thomas changed the game. She was the first woman to ever referee in the NFL, and she's trailblazing the way for countless other women to follow in her footsteps.
Though you may only recognize her from new ads for the NFL, Thomas started her career in officiating 20 years ago, and it all grew out of her love for sports. "I was born into a family of athletes," Thomas tells Bustle. "I've been around sports my whole life." After she graduated from college, she found herself tagging along with her brother to a meeting of football referees, having no idea it would end up being her career path. "As a former athlete I was intrigued that they took pride in administering athletic justice on a playing field."
Even though she had never played football herself, she had an immediate interest in the game, and put in the hard work to learn everything about the sport. Soon enough, she was officiating at the high school level, where she would remain for the next decade.
Thomas says being a referee is "like anything in life. You start at the bottom and you work your way up." That said, along the way, she says she was often doubted simply for being a woman. Her merits didn't matter to some of the schools she officiated for. She thought to herself, "Well, I am a woman and I'm not changing that." She just kept going.
As luck would have it (well, that and hard work) an NFL scout happened to come to a high school playoff game she was officiating. He watched her work and immediately connected her to a Division I supervisor, who helped her jump right past the junior college level and go straight to Conference USA, where she officiated for eight seasons. After that, Thomas joined the NFL Officiating Development Program (ODP), where she was mentored and trained to become a referee for the NFL.
On April 2, 2015, Thomas got the phone call of a lifetime: Dean Blandino, the NFL vice president of officiating, was on the other end of the line, offering her a position as an NFL referee — and saying what an honor it was to do so.
This is now Thomas's second year working as an official in the NFL, and she says every moment has been rewarding. "An adrenaline rush," she beams. That doesn't mean she hasn't run into any other obstacles, though. Thomas says getting pregnant and taking a break from work to give birth was a tremendous challenge.
"When I got pregnant I was more concerned with telling my supervisor than my own dad," Thomas says. She felt the pressure of having to take time off and juggle work-life balance in a field that's full of men — men who have never had to face the challenges of giving birth and starting a family while working full time.
Thomas eventually came back to work after her daughter was born, happier than ever to continue officiating. Upon returning, her supervisor told her what people were saying behind her back. They thought she wasn't going to come back to the job at all after giving birth. They doubted she could get back in shape. She says she simply chose not to let those comments get to her head.
She never paid attention to all the people who insisted that she was only got the job because she was a woman, or that she wasn't going to make it because she was a woman — and it's paid off. Thomas was tapped as the face of Dannon Activia, and she says the partnership has made her think about all the obstacles she's faced in her career. "You have to forget about the naysayers. Don't let your inner critic hold you back."
She encourages young women everywhere to fight for what they love — but not just to prove people wrong or to gain recognition. If you're working hard in something you genuinely believe in, Thomas believes the recognition will naturally follow.
These days, there are a lot of other women breaking into the field of NFL officiating. The day the NFL announced hiring Thomas, she found out there were four female applications for Conference USA — and they had never had any before. At the moment, there are three women in the NFL development program, which Thomas is thrilled to see.
"It's quite a view," she says. "You go to camp now and you see a lot of women."
She predicts a lot of these women might have trouble adjusting to the uniforms. They were "hideous," Thomas says with a laugh. It's a small price to pay, though, to live out the dream.
If you'd like to referee, Thomas advises you figure out who you can trust and who you can take on as your mentor. "That has nothing to do with male or female," she insists. "With any line of work you're trying to figure people out."
More importantly, though, she encourages young women everywhere, no matter what field they're in, to believe in themselves. There will be plenty of people out there who will try to bring you down (like a person in the stands who once told her she threw the flag "like a girl"), so don't let your inner critic add to the noise and tell you you're not good enough. Thomas has proven throughout her 20-year career that trailblazers like her have no other choice but to be their own biggest fan.