Sarah Thomas was a 23-year-old former college basketball player when she was thrown off a Mississippi church-league team because she was female. So she joined her older brother at a football officials’ organizational meeting as a way to stay in sports.
After 16 years of calling high school and college football games, she is poised to become the National Football League’s first permanent female game official, possibly as soon as the 2014 season.
The National Basketball Association has used female referees since 1997, when Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were hired. Major League Baseball has never had a woman umpire.
“I didn’t set out to break a glass ceiling or a gender barrier,” said Thomas, a 39-year-old from Brandon, Miss. “If you’re doing things because you love them, then things have a tendency to just kind of fall into place.”
Thomas and Shannon Eastin, who worked last season as a temporary NFL official while union referees were locked out by the league’s owners, are among 35 officials in the NFL’s training pool. Eastin is at the lower level, and Thomas, a line judge, is one of 21 from whom the NFL will choose the next time there’s a job opening.
Thomas said she’s met Eastin only once, before Eastin became the first woman to officiate an NFL game, on Sept. 9, 2012. Thomas said the two have not spoken about Eastin’s experience.
In 2009, Thomas became the first woman to officiate a college football bowl game: the Little Caesars Bowl between Ohio University and Marshall University.
“Sarah’s at the top of our scouting program,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “She looks the part, she acts the part, she’s confident,. She doesn’t shy away from making decisions. She doesn’t let external factors affect her decisions. That’s one of the really important things that we look for in an official.”
Thomas, who officiates college football in Conference USA, worked an Indianapolis Colts minicamp last month. She’ll call NFL exhibition games in August.
Giants receiver Victor Cruz signed a five-year, $43 million contract extension that runs through the 2018 season. … Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell apologized for his arrest over the weekend on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was arrested Saturday after rear-ending a police SUV. … Jets coach Rex Ryan participated in the annual running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival Sunday and Monday in Pamplona, Spain. He was uninjured. … A Browns fan’s obituary requested that six Browns players serve as his pallbearers “so the Browns can let him down one last time.” The team instead will present a personalized Browns jersey to the family of Scott E. Entsminger, 55, of Mansfield, Ohio.