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What we learned from the first full-time woman ref on the NFL field

We sat down with Sarah Thomas to learn about her journey from college to making NFL history.

The first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart, and the first woman VP of the US, Kamala Harris, are pioneers in their industries and have inspired future generations of women to succeed. This includes people like Sarah Thomas, the first-ever full-time female official in NFL history.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Sarah for our Ask Me Anything event to learn more about her journey from childhood to career.

Sarah’s unique story is an inspiring and timely reminder that remarkable leaders have often veered away from traditional career paths.

In reflection of Handshake’s mission of democratizing access to jobs for students, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status, we were excited to learn how Sarah is leveling the playing field for young women wanting to pursue a career in the NFL.

Who is Sarah Thomas?

Sarah Thomas is a woman of firsts. She is the first full-time female official to be hired by the NFL, and the first woman to officiate a/an:

  1. NFL playoff game (2019 Patriots vs. Chargers)
  2. Major college football game (2007 Memphis vs. Jacksonville State)
  3. College bowl game (2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl game between Marshall and Ohio University)
  4. Super Bowl game (2021 Super Bowl LV)

Sarah Thomas is the first full-time official to be hired by the NFL.

Thomas began her journey to the NFL not because she had always dreamed of officiating, but because she couldn’t imagine life without sports. Sarah’s parents and brothers were athletes, so sports had always been central to her life.

She lettered five times in softball in high school and received a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile. After graduating, she joined a men’s basketball league to continue her passion for sports. Sarah played pick-up games with her brothers growing up, so being the only girl on the court was nothing new. However, she was voted out of the men’s league after three years for precisely this reason. Men were uncomfortable playing with her.

Their discomfort wasn’t going to stop Thomas from participating in sports one way or another. Her brother told her about an aspiring football officials meeting and she tagged along. When she walked into the meeting, she was unaware that women had never officiated or that this wasn’t “their job.” But everyone was honest with her about expectations and it was this openness that changed Thomas’ life forever. She knew she had to be a part of it.

As for breaking barriers, well, that began at a young age. When she was in fifth grade, Thomas’ aunt asked her if she was going to play basketball, but Thomas explained that there wasn’t a girl’s team. Her aunt responded with, “Go out for the boy's team,” so she did. This began her trailblazing journey.

From 'you’ve never played football?' to making NFL history

Despite being the first full-time female official in the NFL, Sarah Thomas has yet to play a game of football. But she didn’t let that stop her from making history along the way.

As a female athlete, Sarah was used to women’s sports where women refs were quite common. She didn’t realize how unusual it was for a woman to break into the world of male sports as an official, which could be why she so fearlessly pursued her passion. Sarah started with grade school football before progressing to high school games.

Thomas worked hard and earned a reputation as being one of the best. After officiating a high school state championship game, she grabbed the attention of Gerry Austin, a now-retired NFL ref who officiated for nearly 30 years. He hired her onto the Conference USA staff. That was the beginning of Thomas’ impressive roster of “firsts.”

Thomas went on to officiate a major college game before earning a full college game schedule (11 games). Her “Be a learn it all, not a know it all” attitude allowed Sarah to hone her skills and land the 2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl crew assignment. With a growing list of achievements, Thomas was hired to the United Football League as part of the crew for the 2010 Championship Game.

Sean Payton, head coach for the New Orleans Saints, endorsed Thomas for the NFL appointment in 2015 after she officiated their training camp practices and the pro game. He told ESPN that “She’s gonna do well. We’ve watched her grow, and she’s gonna be outstanding. She’s got the right demeanor; she’s sharp.” Shortly after, she made history yet again as the first full-time female official in the NFL and just a few years later, she officiated Super Bowl LV.

Sarah Thomas’ hard-hitting impact

Sarah’ story has inspired women everywhere and given aspiring professionals the hope that we can make our dreams a reality someday, but she has done so much more than that too. Sarah opened doors for other women like Katie Sowers and Jennifer King (both female leaders who work(ed) in the NFL), and she has fundamentally changed the NFL.

In 2017, Thomas was promoted from line judge to down judge. Previously known as “head linesman,” down judge was a term the NFL initiated after Sarah joined the NFL to be more gender-neutral. The NFL wanted Thomas to know that they acknowledge her and encourage more women to join as officials.

Like Handshake, Thomas has gone on her journey in hopes that other women (and underrepresented groups) can get into careers they truly love. She wants female officials in every sport, but for now, she’s happy the NFL just hired another female official.

Sarah Thomas is the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl game.

What Sarah wants you to know

Looking outside of her fame as the first full-time female official in the NFL, Thomas reflected on her journey and gave leaders and job-seekers alike some great advice. First and foremost, do what you truly love. And do it because you love it, not because you’re trying to live up to someone’s expectations or because you’re seeking recognition—just do it because you love it.

Sarah told us to stop comparing our journey to others. This can be hard, but she summed up the perfect reason to: “Comparison is the thief of all joy.” Whether you’re breaking barriers or landing your dream job in an industry already suited to you, don’t compare yourself to what other people are doing. Prove to yourself that you belong there and that you can do the job.

“A leader has the people. A boss has a title,” which is why it’s crucial that leadership is hands-on from the beginning. Upper management can sponsor ERGs and spearhead diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts to show new hires that they truly value diversity and people from all backgrounds. Thomas encourages managers to be leaders, not bosses.

For future generations

It’s hard not to be moved by Thomas’ journey to the NFL. She is a pioneer who started out not wanting to give up sports to become the first-ever full-time female official in the NFL. She has been a catalyst for change in the league, and it all began because she didn’t let society’s expectations hold her back.

Sarah Thomas has leveled the playing field for women hoping to officiate in the NFL, but more broadly for anyone who enters into a career that doesn’t have a lot of people who look or sound like them. If Thomas has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t let a lack of diversity discourage you from dreaming.

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