The occupation of NFL referee hasn’t always been the most diverse, but with the help of people like NFL official Sarah Thomas, that’s changing. Since being a high school sporting superstar in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Thomas has been around sports her entire life. Even so, the path to becoming an NFL referee wasn’t an easy one. It took hard work, dedication, and a little bit of history as well. So who is Sarah Thomas — one of the NFL’s trailblazing female officials — who continues to make game-changing moves on and off the field?
Who is Sarah Thomas?
Sarah Thomas was the first female to be hired as a full-time NFL official. She accomplished this in 2015 when the NFL announced the move to make her a regular part of the officiating cast. She wasn’t the first woman to officiate an NFL game. That honor went to Shannon Eastin, who served as a replacement during a referee lockout in 2012. Nevertheless, Thomas was the first to take on a full-time position, knocking out a major milestone.
In January 2019, Thomas became the first female on-field official in playoff history. She was part of the NFL officiating crew for the Divisional Round game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers.
How long has Sarah Thomas worked as an NFL referee?
Thomas was officially announced as a full-time NFL official on April 8, 2015. She’d accrued previous NFL officiating experience during New Orleans Saints training camp practices. During that time, Thomas drew praise from Saints head coach Sean Payton, who immediately recognized her abilities.
Payton, who got a firsthand look at Thomas’ skills in a previous training camp session, gave her 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 being confirmed by former NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino, Thomas has already begun her ascent in the officiating realm. Thomas started as a line judge, then became a down judge in 2017. The down judge position was originally called a “head linesman.” However, it was modified to reflect a more gender-neutral position.
How did she become an official?
As mentioned earlier, being around sports has always been a commonality for Thomas. She was a high school star and played college basketball at the University of Mobile. After her college basketball career, Thomas soon looked to football. She acquired a degree in communications in 1995. And in 1996, she accompanied her brother to a meeting for aspiring football officials, kick-starting her rise.
Being a female athlete, 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 took advantage of her opportunities
On her path to becoming an NFL referee, Thomas had to start small. She began as an official for grade school football games, then worked her way up to the high school level. As a high school official, Thomas attracted more praise and more attention from higher-level leagues.
After a high school state championship game in her native Mississippi, Thomas received a phone call from Gerry Austin. Austin himself was a former NFL referee. He has officiated two Super Bowls and served as a side judge for a third in his career. Austin had received positive reports on Thomas from an officiating scout, who came away impressed with her ability to perform in a high-pressure environment.
The first woman to officiate a major college football game and Super Bowl
Austin hired Thomas, and the rest is history. In 2007, Thomas became the first woman to officiate a major college football game as part of the Memphis/Jacksonville State game crew. After two years of earning her stripes, Thomas earned a crew assignment in 2009. For the first time in her career, Thomas received a full 11-game schedule.
Thomas kept impressing on that crew and eventually saw her name on the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl roster, a game between Marshall and Ohio. Thomas added 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. She worked with the UFL as part of the 2010 Championship Game crew.
Thomas’ strong résumé and performances on the field eventually saw her land on the NFL radar in 2013. She became 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.
Thomas finally reaches the NFL as an official
Aspiring to reach higher heights, Thomas hit a new milestone in her already successful officiating career when she was named to officiate in Super Bowl 55 in 2021. Thomas is the first woman to ever officiate in a Super Bowl — paving the way for many more females — not only in the officiating world but coaching as well.
Today, Thomas is still on the NFL’s officiating roster. She’s listed as a down judge, wearing jersey No. 53. By now, she’s spent seven years in the league, paving the way for others to follow in her footsteps. She may no longer be the only female NFL referee, joined by Maia Chaka on the professional stage — but she’ll always be the first.