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Sarah Thomas is football's most accomplished female referee and may become the first woman to work as a regular referee in the National Football League.
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Sarah Thomas was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1973. She played basketball in college and wanted to stay involved in sports after graduating. In 1996, she became interested in football officiating. Her skill as a referee brought her to the attention of college football and the National Football League. In 2013, Thomas was a finalist to become a game official for the NFL.
"I didn't set out to break a glass ceiling or a gender barrier. If you're doing things because you love them, then things have a tendency to just kind of fall into place."
"When I walk on the field, if they don't look at my face, they don't know I'm a woman."
"I was not doing this to make a statement or ruffle feathers. I just enjoy sports."
"I really don't feel like I get harsher treatment of any sort. The coaches and the players, it's their job. The players want to win, it's competitive, the heat of the moment, spirit of the game. If I make a call or I miss a call, they express it and the coaches express it and we're on to the next play."
"The guys that I officiate with, it's a profession. They understand that we're all there for the same goal, to get through the game, go unnoticed, be uneventful and so I don't ever feel like I'm isolated or anything. I've been welcomed and part of the group."
"I don't feel a weight on my shoulders. It's exciting. I didn't set out to be the first or a pioneer, but I will embrace it, if that does happen."
"You just do it. I have to tend to the kids, I have to do my job, and I have to get ready for football season. It's just what I have to do."
Born in 1973 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Sarah Thomas grew up loving sports. She lettered in softball in high school, then attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship. After graduating from college, Thomas continued to play basketball on a men's team in a Mississippi church league.
After she had been with that team for two years, a pastor said Thomas couldn't continue playing. She missed being involved with sports, so when her brother went to a meeting of the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association in 1996, she decided to join him. Although she did not know a lot about the rules for football, she was interested in the process and soon began officiating.
Thomas studied and worked her way up in officiating, arriving at the high school level in 1999. In 2006, she decided to step away from refereeing in order to focus on her career and her growing family. However, Thomas's abilities had already been noticed by scouts in the field. She was contacted by Gerald Austin, a coordinator of football officials for Conference USA (a college athletic conference).
Austin invited Thomas to attend an officials' camp, where he was impressed by her performance. Conference USA hired Thomas in 2007. Since then, she has continued to move up the ranks. She became the first woman to officiate a bowl game in 2009. In 2011, she was the first female referee to work in a Big Ten stadium.
Thomas's ability to stay cool while handling players, coaches and fans, as well as her ability to make difficult calls, also impressed the National Football League. She became part of the NFL's Officiating Development Program, which trains individuals to officiate professional football games. Thomas is currently one of the development program's finalists. This means that if there is an officiating vacancy in the NFL, she would automatically be in contention for the job. There will likely be an opening during the 2014 season.
If Thomas is selected, she would be the first permanent female game official in the NFL. However, she would not be the first woman to referee an NFL game. In 2012, when a labor dispute led to a lockout of all official referees, Shannon Eastin served as a replacement referee. Thomas--already part of the NFL's training program at the time--did not cross the picket line.
In addition to her football officiating work, Thomas has a job as a pharmaceutical representative and is married with three children. Although she has received a lot of media attention about her NFL potential, Thomas has taken it in stride. In 2013, she said, "I didn't set out to be the first or a pioneer, but I will embrace it, if that does happen."
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