Sarah Thomas, an NFL official, has defied the odds throughout her professional career, competing for positions in the male-dominated industry of football officiating. Being an NFL ref and official comes with pressure, expectation, and responsibility. A high school sporting superstar in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Thomas has paid her dues at all football levels. Now, as the NFL’s only female official, she is one of the key figures involved in making the game-changing decisions each week.
Who is Sarah Thomas?
Sarah Thomas is an NFL official who made history in 2015 when she became the first female hired as a full-time official. While she wasn’t the first woman to officiate an NFL game – Shannon Eastin stepped in as a replacement during the 2012 referee lockout – she is the first to earn the position full-time.
In January 2019, Thomas became the first female on-field official in NFL playoff history as part of the crew for the Divisional Round game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers.
How long has Sarah Thomas worked for the NFL?
The NFL announced Sarah Thomas’ hiring as a full-time official on April 8, 2015. She had previously spent time officiating during training camp practices for the New Orleans Saints, where she earned rave reviews from head coach Sean Payton.
Payton, who had more first-hand experience of her talent than anybody in the pro game, was one of the first to give Sarah Thomas’ appointment his approval. “She’s ready,” he told ESPN in 2015. “She’s gonna do well. We’ve watched her grow, and she’s gonna be outstanding. She’s got the right demeanor; she’s sharp.”
Since receiving the call from Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating at the time, confirming her appointment, Sarah Thomas has already started working her way up the ladder. Beginning her NFL career as a line judge, she moved to down judge in 2017 in a move that saw the position renamed from head linesman to ensure gender neutrality.
How did she become an official?
After finishing her college basketball career at the University of Mobile, Sarah Thomas came to football, graduating with a degree in communications in 1995. Looking to remain involved in sports, she jumped at the opportunity the following year to attend a meeting for aspiring football officials with her brother.
Given her background as a female athlete, Sarah Thomas was used to women’s sports, where women referees were commonplace and wouldn’t be given a second glance. She was unaware quite how unusual it was to have somebody of her gender looking to enter the world of officiating male sports. It wasn’t long, though, before she realized she was right where she belonged.
Thomas began her career path to becoming an NFL ref officiating grade school football before progressing to high school games, earning a reputation as one of the best at that level. Following a high school state championship game in her native Mississippi, she received a phone call from Gerry Austin – a name to remember in the world of football officiating.
As an NFL ref, he took charge of two Super Bowls and was a side judge in a third. At the time, he was Conference USA’s supervisor of officials. He had received positive reports from an officiating scout, who was impressed with her performance in a high-pressure game.
The first woman to officiate a major college football game
Austin hired her, and in 2007, Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a major college football game when she worked as part of the crew for a game between Memphis and Jacksonville State. After two years of earning her (official) stripes, Thomas was assigned to a crew in 2009 and given a full 11 game schedule for the first time in her college career.
Her reward for her strong performances throughout the season saw her named to the crew for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio, adding the achievement of being the first female to officiate a bowl game to her ever-growing list of accomplishments. Continuing at the college level, she also officiated for the short-lived United Football League, working as part of the 2010 championship game crew.
Sarah Thomas’ strong resume and performances on the field eventually saw her land on the National Football League radar in 2013 as one of 21 finalists in the league’s officiating development program, pushing her in the unprecedented direction of becoming the NFL’s first full-time female official.
Andy Gallagher is a writer for PFN. You can follow him @AndySGallagher on Twitter.