Last year, when former Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer unconscious in an elevator, the National Football League (NFL) had an opportunity to improve their reputation with women. They could have made a statement on domestic abuse involving players and their significant others.
Instead, the NFL only sanctioned Rice with a two game suspension, a penalty that is only half as severe as testing positive for marijuana. Since that incident, the NFL’s poor reputation concerning women has devolved even further.
The NFL appears to have started the process of restructuring their image with the recent hiring of Sarah Thomas, the first full-time female NFL referee. But despite this milestone, the NFL has a long road to travel in terms of becoming an equitable organization.
Even so, Thomas’s accomplishment should not go unnoticed, as she has successfully broken the gender barrier among NFL referees.
Thomas helped usher in a new era in the male-dominated NFL Sept.13, making her regular season debut as a line judge in a game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston. Despite the pressure of the milestone as the first female referee, Thomas showed poise and a cool head as she interacted with players.
Prior to picking up the whistle, the Pascagoula, Mississippi native was a standout in both basketball and softball during her years at Pascagoula High School, lettering five times between the two sports. From there, she received a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile, where she was named an Academic All-American. Following her playing career, Thomas decided to stay with sports and moved to officiating.
Thomas’s status as a pioneer is almost second nature to her, as she has broken barriers at nearly every stage of her officiating career. In 2006, Thomas became the first woman to officiate a major college football game. Three years later, she became the first female official to referee a college football bowl game, as she worked in an officials crew for the 2009 Little Caesars Bowl. Following her success in college officiating, she was nominated as a potential NFL referee in 2013, setting the stage for her to tear down the walls of the old boys club.
However, one step in the right direction is not enough, and the NFL has much to prove in order to stand as a morally upright organization. The institution’s next step should be to reevaluate the way they handle the punishment of players’ off-field actions, including setting a zero-tolerance policy for players involved in domestic abuse or assault. Nevertheless, Thomas’s addition into the ranks of NFL referees marks a significant barrier broken within sports and provides an avenue for greater gender equality and opportunity.