Sarah Thomas shared her journey to becoming the NFL’s first female official during the co-located CUNA Technology Council and Operations & Member Experience Council Conferences Wednesday in Chicago.
Thomas grew up as an athlete in Mississippi during a time when girls’ teams didn’t exist for many sports. She says being the only girl on her otherwise all-male basketball teams prepared her to become a referee.
After playing college basketball—and being asked to leave a recreational men’s basketball league—she attended a referee’s meeting with her brother. She was immediately hooked.
“When I saw these guys challenge each other on rules, play situations, and what-if scenarios, I was so intrigued,” she says. “But I didn’t know anything about football. That competitive side of me kicked in.”
She caught the eye of a referee scout who encouraged her to move up to the collegiate level. She asked the scout what grabbed his attention.
“He said, ‘It was the way you carried yourself during a controversial situation on the field,’” Thomas recalls. “One thing I learned from that: Someone is always watching you. It may not be what you do right or wrong, but how you carry yourself that distinguishes you.”
In 2007, she joined the NCAA’s Conference USA division and worked with several indoor and developmental leagues, including NFL Europe.
Although these games gave Thomas invaluable experience, she was initially denied a position in the NFL—a tough pill to swallow.
But on April 8, 2015, NFL Vice President Dean Blandino called to congratulate her: She was an NFL official.
Thomas understands the importance of her status as the NFL’s first female official, but she says being a referee is an equal-opportunity occupation—and that includes the hazards that come with it.
“There’s an equal chance you’re going to get your tail chewed when you’re out there,” she says. “I’m an official first. I don’t want to be identified as the only female NFL official, even though I understand what that title means to so many people.”
She’s not done yet. Thomas wants to progress. Her latest milestone was being selected for on-the-field official for a 2018 playoff game.
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