On April 3, Mississippi native Sarah Thomas made history by becoming the first female full-time official to be hired by the National Football League NFL. Thomas is among eight new officials this year.
Thomas isn’t the first female to officiate a game in the NFL – that honor belongs to Shannon Eastin, who served as an official during the 2012 season when many referees were locked out due to contract negotiations. Thomas developed her interest in football when she and her brother attended a meeting about calling football games.
Thomas currently works as a pharmaceutical representative when she is not officiating for football games, and she is also the mother of three children. Thomas has claimed that although she is grateful and proud to be the first full-time female officiator, she is just focused on being the best official she can be.
Thomas discussed her feelings on the situation in a USA Today article entitled “Trailblazer Sarah Thomas may be first of many female NFL officials,” published on April 8.
“I’m just doing this because I truly love it…the guys don’t think of me as a female, they see me as just another official,” Thomas said.
Thomas isn’t just a gimmick or a novelty in the NFL; there is also another female official, Maia Chaka. She is in the NFL’s advanced developmental program for referees – a group of 21 that is likely to be tapped for promotion to the highest levels of refereeing. Although Thomas wasn’t the only woman, almost all professional sports remain dominated by men in the roles of refereeing.
The NFL faces pressure to be seen in a positive light when it comes to its treatment of women, especially in light of the controversy of Ray Rice, who assaulted his fiancée in a an elevator last year. The league came under criticism when the commissioner Roger Goodell had lightly punished Rice and then admitted to having done so, which resulted in Rice’s indefinite suspension.
Beyond officiating, other women have been appointed as the first chief health and medical adviser and vice president of social responsibility. The NFL hasn’t been the only athletic institution to have few women in its officiating cohorts. To put it into perspective with other sports, the NBA has only three female officials, the first of which joined in 1997. The MLB has only used female umpires in spring training games and the minor leagues and has yet to have a full-time female umpire at the highest levels. The NFL also does not bar women or transgender people from participating in the NFL, but has no female players.
These steps to integrate women into mainstream sports are also important due to the historic roots of discouraging women from entering athletics, through both the rules of the governing bodies and through societal and cultural pressures that advantage men over women in athletic organizations.
So, while perhaps few rules remain in effect that explicitly prohibit women from athletics, there still exist many pressures that keep women underrepresented. The introduction of more and more women like Sarah Thomas into professional sports should help to mitigate these pressures.
Graphic Credit: ERIN KNADLER/MANITOU MESSENGER