Sarah Thomas made history after being hired by Austin by becoming the first female to officiate a college football game, as part of the Memphis/Jacksonville game crew. This was the first of several firsts to come as a female official including capping her sixth NFL season by becoming the first female to officiate the Super Bowl in NFL history earlier this year. (AP Photo/David Richard, File)
By Nicole D. Batey
Special to the AFRO
In the male-dominated industry of the National Football League (NFL), Sarah Thomas, is making not only name for herself, as the first female official, but she’s paving the way for more female officials. As a full-time official, Thomas is the only woman with a seat at the table making key game decisions regarding the league.
Growing up, Sarah Thomas always had a love for sports. In college, she was an athlete playing women’s basketball for the University of Mobile (Mobile, Alabama). Upon her graduation in 1995 with a degree in communications, Thomas sought opportunities to work in the sports arena.
(AP Photo/David Richard, File)
It might surprise you that Sarah Thomas didn’t set out to be a career football official. In a CBS interview, Thomas said, “I couldn’t say I ever set out to be a football official, but I ended up falling in love with it. I often joke about I hated the officials when I was playing, and they hated me, but as you pursue this career and you fall in love with what you are doing and to be a part of such a strong fraternity and they let a little sister in, and I know there’s going to be some more women following me.” However, her open door came when she attended a meeting for aspiring football officials with one of her brothers.
Thomas started out small, officiating grade school football games and after a time, moved on to high school football, where she stood out and proved herself as one of the best. Her level of professionalism came to the attention of Gerry Austin, a former Conference USA supervisor of officials and NFL ref who oversaw two Super Bowls.
Sarah Thomas made history after being hired by Austin by becoming the first female to officiate a college football game, as part of the Memphis/Jacksonville game crew.
This was the first of several firsts to come as a female official.
(AP Photo/David Richard, File)
In 2013, Thomas was one of 21 finalists in the NFL’s officiating development program. Fast track to 2015, Thomas became the first female hired as a full-time official for the NFL. Also in 2019, she was the first female on-field official in playoff history during the Divisional Round game between the Chargers and the Patriots. Then in 2021, Sarah Thomas became the first female officiate to ref a NFL Super Bowl game, Super Bowl 55.
After the Super Bowl, Thomas was joined on the field by her children – two son, Brady and Bridley; and one daughter, Bailey. They remind her of what’s most important. “Them being there, I think just gave me another sense of just calm. That they’re there. They’re safe,” she said. “And I often say being the first in any of this is not what I set out to do, but being a mom first is what I am to do. So having them there and to share this with me, it was just unbelievable.”
As a result of Sarah Thomas’ firsts, some of the NFL terminology has changed. The position “line headsman” was formally changed to “down judge” after her hiring, to be more inclusive and encourage more women to pursue officiating. So hopefully soon Sarah Thomas won’t be the only female NFL official with a seat at the table.
Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members! Join here!