Sarah Thomas is looking to make sports history in an effort to become the first full-time female official in the National Football League. The 39-year-old Mississippi mother-of-three is auditioning to become an NFL line judge. She’ll be working on Friday night at the preseason game between the New Orleans Saints and the Oakland Raiders.
“I know a lot of females are maybe inspired that there’s a gender-barrier about to be broken. But I never set out to shatter the glass ceiling,” Thomas said.
She shattered it seven years ago at the collegiate level, officiating games for Conference USA. She was the first female official at the NCAA’s Division I level, and the first to work a college bowl game.
Thomas is now in the NFL’s developmental program. The league’s best prospects compete to become one of its 119 officials as positions become available.
Thomas says the players notice the difference. She said, “Yeah, sure. I mean when I walk up and have mascara on and maybe some lip gloss, yeah, they notice the difference and hear my tone.”
Thomas wears her hair under her cap to blend in, but the NFL noticed her anyway. Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, said, “She’s here for a reason. … We’re looking for the best officials. So she can either do it or she can’t do it, whether she’s male or female. And that’s ultimately going to be the deciding factor.”
Asked to handicap her chances, Blandino said, “I’d say, if she keeps doing what she’s done, they’re pretty good.”
The NFL is a big jump from college competition: the size of the players, and also the speed and intensity of the game. Players get hot, but officials have to stay cool.
“So when you have some 300-pound guy in your face, yelling about some call that you’ve made, what is that like?” CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman asked Thomas.
“I was an athlete myself at one time. And I joke about it, but I couldn’t stand the officials. I just try to let him know that maybe I didn’t see it the way he saw it, or you know, that I’m doing a job,” she said.
Roman Harper plays safety for the New Orleans Saints. He said he’s rooting for Thomas. “At the end of the day when she throws the flag, nobody is going to be happy,” he said. “She’s just like every other ref.”
After her NFL exhibition game on Friday night, Thomas will return to the collegiate field this fall, knowing the league’s scouts will be watching.