Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a major college football game in 2007 and the first woman to work a college bowl game two years later. Now she is reportedly set to become the NFL’s first full-time official, according to The Baltimore Sun’s Aaron Wilson:
Hearing the NFL has hired its first female official, Sarah Thomas, a ground-breaking move. Mississippi native was a finalist previously
— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) April 3, 2015
Thomas has worked at the NFL level before, refereeing NFL training camp scrimmages for the New Orleans Saints during the 2013 season, when she also worked a preseason game between the Saints and Oakland Raiders. The Mississippi native has been on track to join the NFL for at least two seasons since joining the NFL’s Officiating Development Program, which the league began two seasons ago to better train top collegiate officials to move up to the pro ranks and allowed Thomas and another woman, Maia Chaka, to work mini-camp scrimmages and preseason games. Thomas was among the finalists to gain a permanent NFL gig in each of the past two seasons; Chaka worked a preseason game between New England and Philadelphia last year.
The NFL has not yet commented on or confirmed reports that it has hired Thomas on a full-time basis, but the head of the league’s officiating has complimented her work in the past.
“She’s a natural,” Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, told Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman in 2013. “One of the things we look for in young officials is, are they intimidated on the field? She is not. She has all the characteristics we want in an official.
“Sarah is in a unique position, obviously, but she will be defined by the calls she makes on the field. Just like every other official.”
Thomas, who has spent past seasons working in college football’s Conference USA, will not be the first woman to work an NFL game, as referee Shannon Eastin officiated a 2012 regular season game while the NFL Referees Association was locked out in a contract dispute with the league. But she is indicative of football’s progress, at all levels, toward having women on the field in a permanent role. Four women worked a Division II college game in October 2013, making it the first to feature a majority-woman officiating crew. The Big XII, one of college football’s five major conferences, hired a woman official for a non-conference game in 2014, the first time it had ever done so. More women working at the college level could give even more the opportunity to ascend to the NFL level in the future.
If it hires Thomas, the NFL will become the second of the four major leagues to enlist a woman official on a full-time basis. The NBA hired Violet Palmer and Dee Kanter as its first full-time women referees in 1997 and two more women, Lauren Holtkamp and Brenda Pantoja, in 2012. Major League Baseball and the NHL have never had women umpires or referees, though women have worked both sports at the minor league levels. Women have worked as referees and assistant referees in Major League Soccer.