NFL: Thomas shows the way for female referees

By Teresa M. Walker

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sarah Thomas looks at the mirror in the officials' locker room, tucking hair under a straightened cap and feels happy.

"I look like a boy," the linesman says.

Actually, she looks like a referee.

With her shoulder-length blond hair tied up in a knot behind her head and covered by the black hat, close inspection is needed to notice that Thomas is a woman on the otherwise all-male crew officiating the game.

Thomas made history in 2007 as the first woman to officiate a Division I college football game and is on the NFL's list of officiating prospects. The 36-year-old married mother of two young sons from Brandon, Miss., who also is a pharmaceutical representative, knows few officials ever make it to the NFL.

"I'll cross that bridge when it presents itself," Thomas said.

She is one of five women officiating Division I college football, with two working in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and two in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Terri Valenti is believed to be the first woman to officiate a pro game — on Oct. 17 she worked as head linesman of a United Football League game between the California Redwoods and New York Sentinels.

"I'm not doing this for recognition or wanting to break a glass ceiling or whatever," Thomas says. "I'm going at it the same way they're going at it. There's a job to be done. It just so happens I'm a female. I can't change that."

She may not be doing it for recognition, but the NFL has noticed.

"Sarah Thomas is most definitely on our list of officiating prospects," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "We have been scouting her, and we arranged for her to work at the New Orleans Saints training camp the past two summers."

Thomas considered quitting in 2006 to focus on her family.

Her sons, Bridley and Brady, were playing sports themselves, and her husband, Brian, coached. Junior colleges weren't interested in women working as officials. She had worked high school playoffs and all-star games and felt she had gone as far as she could.

Then she got a call from Joe Haynes, who had seen her officiate a game he scouted.

Haynes then called Gerald Austin, an NFL referee for more than 25 years and head of officials for Conference USA, to talk with Thomas. Austin liked her approach and philosophy of officiating, so he got her into an officials camp held annually in Reno, Nev.

"There were 12 people at each position, and I felt like Sarah was as good as anyone else at her position when I saw her," Austin said.

He put her on staff at Conference USA in 2007, working her in two nonconference games against Football Championship Series teams.

Thomas worked more games in 2008 and was put on a crew with a full slate of 11 games this season. Austin likes her knowledge of rules, coachability and field presence.

Austin also sees her having the potential to be considered in the future for the NFL.

"I wouldn't say, yeah, she's going to be in the NFL someday. There's too many good officials out there. The NFL's going to look at her just like anybody else. Who can go out there on Sunday afternoon and do the job?" Austin said.

Qualifying to become an NFL official isn't easy. At least 10 years of total officiating experience is required, including five years at the Division I college level or with another professional league.

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