Over the past several seasons, the NFL has diversified its gameday officiating crews, opening the door for more talented individuals to don the zebra stripes on Sundays. One of the trailblazers of that movement, Sarah Thomas, is entering her ninth season as an NFL official. How did Thomas become a pioneer of progress in football, and what is her role in the NFL today?
Who is Sarah Thomas?
Sports have been an integral part Sarah Thomas’ life for decades. In high school, she lettered five times for softball before going to the University of Mobile on a scholarship for basketball. After graduation, she took a brief break from athletics to work in the pharmaceutical industry before making her way to football.
Thomas first worked as a referee in varsity high school football in 1999. In 2006, she was invited to an officials camp hosted by then-Conference USA’s coordinator of officials, Gerry Austin.
She went on to become the first woman to officiate a major college football game in 2007 during a matchup between Memphis and Jacksonville State. By the 2009 CFB season, she was one of five women officiating games at the collegiate level and became the first to officiate a bowl game.
In 2010, Thomas made her first jump to the professional level, working several United Football League games, including the league’s championship.
How Long Has Sarah Thomas Worked as an NFL Referee?
In April 2015, the NFL announced that Thomas would become the first female official in the league’s history. She had previously worked offseason practices and scrimmages for the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts in 2013.
Her regular season debut came in a matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans as part of now-retired referee Pete Morelli’s crew. Thomas worked the game as a line judge.
Saints head coach Sean Payton, who got a firsthand look at Thomas’ skills in a training camp session, endorsed Thomas’ appointment. “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 being confirmed by former NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino, Thomas has already begun her ascent in the officiating realm. After several seasons as a line judge, Thomas became a down judge in 2017. The down judge position was previously called a “head linesman,” but the title was subsequently modified to reflect a more gender-neutral position.
The First Woman To Officiate in the Super Bowl
Aspiring to reach even greater heights, Thomas hit a new milestone in her already-successful officiating career when she was selected to officiate as part of Super Bowl 55’s crew in 2021.
Thomas is the first woman to ever officiate in a Super Bowl. Her inspiring story not only paves the way for more women to make it in the officiating space but also in the rest of the NFL as well.
The league currently has several women in coaching positions, including assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and director of rehabilitation/performance coach Maral Javadifar (Tampa Bay), assistant wide receivers coach Callie Brownson (Cleveland), assistant running backs coach Jennifer King (Washington), offensive quality control coach Angela Baker (New York Giants), and sports performance coach Autumn Lockwood (Philadelphia).
Today, Thomas is still on the NFL’s officiating roster. She’s listed as a down judge, wearing jersey No. 53. She may no longer be the only female NFL referee, as she’s been joined by Maia Chaka on the professional stage — but she’ll always be the first.