Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas, the first female NFL Referee (Photo courtesy of the NY Daily News)

by Christine Urio

Before a big match, professionals typically have a pre-game ritual. For Sarah Thomas, this includes sweeping her hair up underneath her referee’s cap.

As the first female referee in the NFL, “the league named her as one of nine new referees hired for the upcoming season — making her the first full-time female official in its 95-year history,” said the Washington Post.

While this is groundbreaking, it is sad that it has taken nearly a century for a woman to step foot on an NFL field.

Thomas has been blazing the way for women in the sports industry since she was young, so while this big step in her career is exciting, it is not anything new. She was picked as the first female referee for a major college football game, as well as the first woman to officiate at a bowl game.

Growing up in a family of brothers, Thomas was accustomed to being the only girl.

“I always just played with the boys,” she said in a Washington Post article.

Thomas didn’t think twice about attending a football officials meeting with her brother, despite his warning that she may receive a few stares.

“These are a bunch of old men set in their ways,” he told her.

Thankfully as time has progressed people’s views toward women have changed, yet some are still skeptical of Thomas’ hiring, saying that it was done to make up for the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal.

Similar thoughts have been expressed regarding Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to have been drafted to the NFL.

“If he wasn’t gay, he would have gone undrafted,’’ Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks said in a Washington Post article of the defensive end, who was a seventh-round draft pick last year.  “Instead, the league drafts him because I think they are trying to monopolize every aspect of the world. The same thing with a female ref. … For the league, it’s great publicity. The NFL is all about monopolizing every opportunity.’’

However, Thomas’ talent is apparent, for she has made numerous tough calls and has a winning resume, which is how she was scouted and landed the position she now has.

While it may seem like she is now in the clear, there is an immense amount of pressure on Thomas’ performance.

“If she does a good job, I think she will have a very positive effect. If she messes up, some people might say females aren’t ready,” said Gerald Austin, a former NFL referee in an NPR article.

It is frustrating to come so far and still have your abilities doubted. Generalizations such as this are harmful and debilitating because Thomas has now inadvertently become the face of all female referees and needs to do justice to prove to the world that women are ready for this responsibility.

This notion inside of itself is excruciatingly demeaning, for it implies that the world is waiting for this woman to fail because she is too week or unskilled to handle a job preformed mostly by men.

Thomas’ ability to blend in is what has helped her to be successful. This capability is double-sided, for on the micro level of gender, nobody should have to alter their identity to gain respect. Yet, on the broader level of her career, this is a helpful skill.

“If you notice officials, it usually means they’re not doing their job correctly. And I can’t remember a time that I’ve seen a game that she officiated when I noticed her,” sports writer Rick Cleveland told NPR.

In her uniform, she is practically indistinguishable from the rest of the people on the field, but this should not even matter, what matters is the calls she is making.

“When you’re out there officiating, the guys don’t think of me as a female. I mean, they want me to be just like them — just be an official — and that’s what I’ve always set out to do,” said Thomas in a Washington Post article.

Football is deemed one of the “manliest” sports, but NFL official Jack Vaughn is not blinded by gender.

“You don’t have to be a man to tell whether somebody jumped off-sides or not. And you don’t have to be a man to learn the rules of football,” he said in a Washington Post article.

Thomas should not be defined by her sex.  She should not be seen as a man or a woman, she should be seen as what she is—a referee.