The NFL is a league that is naturally dominated by men. This is more of a stark contrast than it is in other sports because there is no WNFL or women’s national teams. It’s a game played by men and, as a result, coached by men. That’s unlikely to ever change. But there is one area in which it’s very easy for women to be involved, and that’s officiating.
ESPN reported that the NFL will hire its very first female official for a full-time position. That official will be Sarah Thomas, who previously worked with Conference USA. The NFL has yet to confirm anything, but it really looks as if Thomas will be in for 2015.
A female ref has been used once before, back in the days of the replacement referees in 2012. They were dark days, but that was hardly Shannon Eastin’s fault. She was just one of many who were thrown into a chaotic situation with predictable results. Thomas will have the full time needed to train and prepare, she’ll work a normal schedule and things should go much more smoothly than they did before.
Additionally, Eastin was only a part-time hire, so Thomas’ looming job is really groundbreaking.
What this shows is that the NFL is willing to change. Traditions are huge in sports. People like to do the same thing over and over again and cry out when things change. That change often has to be very gradual, as it has been with replay rules and challenges. A league that is resistant to change is evolving right now, breaking down a barrier that has been in place since its inception.
It does put Thomas in a hard spot, though. All eyes are going to be on her. If she falters at all, there are sure to be detractors saying she can’t do it and she shouldn’t be on the field. Never mind how officials are always being blamed for mistakes; with her, the blame is going to be that much more harsh. This is especially true online, where people are merciless.
Even right now, the comments are already brutal and she has yet to make a call. There are people calling it a political ploy, comparing her to G.I. Jane. Some people are calling it a PR move, saying the NFL just wants to appear to support equality. Some are already suggesting she was just picked because of her gender, rather than other refs who know more about the sport.
These people are in the minority. Far more are stressing that they just hope she makes the right calls — that getting it right is the one and only thing that matters. But these early indications show how tough it could be. It’s never easy to break down walls and barriers, and this will be no different.
Fortunately, Thomas is more than qualified to do it. She got her start working in this field all the way back in 1996. That’s before Peyton Manning had even been drafted. Jameis Winston, projected first-overall pick for 2015, was two years old.
Two years old.
She has the experience and some to spare. She’s worked college games and has been looked at by the NFL for years. It’s something she’s always been interested in doing, and everything suggests she’ll be more than up to the task.
For Thomas, though, she says it isn’t about being the first full-time female ref. It isn’t about breaking down gender barriers or getting into the history books. It’s about something a lot simpler, something all fans and players can connect with:
The love of the game.