With her blonde hair tucked into her black referee hat, it’s relatively easy to overlook Sarah Thomas and assume that she’s just another male college football referee—only she’s not. Thomas is major college football’s only female referee.
She started as many others did, officiating for youth leagues and studying for tests as she worked her way through middle school and junior varsity games. She reached the high school level in 1999, and worked the game clock while pregnant with her sons, Bridley, now 8, and Brady, 5.
The spouses of her crew even made her a maternity referee shirt so she could continue pursuing her passion during her pregnancy.
When asked whether the players are surprised by her presence on the side line, she told her interviewer that she blends easily into the sideline and is hardly noticed by coaches or players. “Most of the time they are so focused on what they are doing, they don’t notice me,” she said, “and that is what every other official strives for. Our best games are the ones that no one knows we’re there.”
While she may be successful in avoiding the attention of the players, this certainly does not mean that her hard work went unnoticed by everyone. The Times reports that in 2006, she came to the attention of Gerald Austin, an NFL official for more than 25 years.
An officiating scout, another former N.F.L. official, had been impressed by Thomas’s work in a high-pressure playoff game, and called Austin to tell him so. Austin invited Thomas to an officials’ camp in Reno, Nev. “She made one tough call after another and nailed every one of them,” Austin said. “There was no reason not to hire her.”
After two years of training and being eased into the rotation, Austin scheduled Thomas for a full schedule of games this fall. Although the NFL has yet to hire a female referee, Austin thinks that when it finally happens, Thomas would be first on the list, saying, “They have got to look at her,” and “She’s too good.”
Thomas’s success has inspired other women who love football but thought their participation in the sport was limited to screaming at the television to pursue positions as referees. Currently, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has three women on its officiating crews. And this past weekend, the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s first female football official will work a game.
We wish Thomas good luck with her first season officiating at the top tier of college football, and hope that we’ll be hearing about her appointment as the first female referee in the NFL one of these days.