Sports Football

NFL's first female official worthy of status

John Kryk

By John Kryk, Toronto Sun

The NFL hired Sarah Thomas, their first female on-field official. (NFL.com)

The NFL hired Sarah Thomas, their first female on-field official. (NFL.com)

The NFL has hired another woman to get players to toe the line.

Literally, this time. On the field.

On Wednesday the league announced the hiring of nine new game officials, including line judge Sarah Thomas -- the first female to work as a full-fledged NFL official. (Shannon Eastin was a replacement line judge for three weeks in 2012, during the officials lockout.)

A mother of three from Brandon, Miss., Thomas will be assigned to one of 17 regular crews, VP of officiating Dean Blandino said on a conference call.

She got the news late last week and remembers exactly when.

"That call came Thursday, April 2 at 10:47 a.m.," Thomas said with her southern drawl. "When I looked at my phone and it was area code 212, I was just praying it was Dean Blandino at the other end of the line. It was."

Last month it was reported that Lisa Friel, a former New York sex-crimes prosecutor, will oversee figurative line-crossings. That is, the league's independent investigations into off-field misconduct."

As for Thomas, park your cynicism. Hers was no token or rushed promotion.

A former basketball player at the University of Mobile in Alabama, Thomas began officiating boys high school games in her home state in the early 1990s. In 1996, she became the first woman to officiate a top-division high school game in Mississippi.

Eight years ago she graduated to the college ranks when a top-tier U.S. league comprising mostly southern universities -- Conference USA -- hired her. She has worked C-USA games as both a head linesman and line judge since then, and became the first woman to officiate a bowl game in 2009: the Little Caesars Bowl between Marshall and Ohio.

From 2009-12, Thomas officiated games in the United Football League, a short-lived U.S. pro league. She worked the 2010 championship game as line judge.

Thomas joined the NFL's officiating development program in 2013. Blandino said some 6,000 officials are part of that program at all levels, and "about 15" are women.

Over the past two years, just 21 of the 6,000, including Thomas, apprenticed at the top level, working NFL training camps, shadowing full-time refs on game days and even working preseason games themselves.

Thomas worked a Baltimore Ravens preseason game last summer.

"She did a good job," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "She might be one of the better ones we've had."

Blandino said the nine best officials in that advanced-level program just got promoted to the big-time. They'll replace "seven or eight" men who either are retiring or will be let go by month's end, Blandino said.

Yes, the NFL does fire bad officials. The league's "tier-based ranking system" sees the lowest officials (Tier 3) get "enhanced training." Those who still don't improve get shown the door.

"I won't get into specific names," Blandino said. "We are going to publish the (2015) roster toward the end of the month, so you can look at the roster and probably figure it out."

To that point, Blandino said Thomas now has to prove herself.

"She's earned the right (to be in the NFL)," Blandino said. "But she's going to be evaluated, just like all the other officials, based on her performance (this) year."

By hiring more officials than they're letting go, Blandino said there will be a couple of "floater" officials for the first time who won't be part of any particular crew.

Thomas thus adds NFL duties to her fulltime job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, plus a busy home life as a wife of 15 years and a mother of two boys (aged 14 and 11) and a girl (aged two).

"As far as the travel, I really don't know what to expect," Thomas said. "My life the last two years has been a lot of travel, so my family is accustomed to it. And I have a tremendous support group at home."

Thomas said she grew up in an athletic household. Her brothers played football, and now are officials themselves at the small-college level.

Becoming an NFL game official was never her long-term goal, Thomas said. But she understands and embraces the historical importance of what she's about to do.

"I've always said, 'I'm a female and I can't change that,'" she said. "A lot of people consider me a trail-blazer. But as far as being forced into the trail-blazer role ... I don't feel that way. I've been doing it truly because I love it. When you're out there officiating, the guys don't think of me as a female. They want me to be just (an) official. And that's what I've always set out to do.

"It's just the mindset of an official that you don't want to be seen or noticed. I don't know if it's just that my mind has been trained that way as an official after 20 years. But do I downplay the honour that it is to be first? Absolutely not. Hopefully it will open doors for anyone: little girls or guys that think maybe that can't do something."

A long-haired blonde, Thomas has kept her hair in a bun inside her cap during games since joining C-USA, rather than wear a ponytail, so as "to blend in (and avoid) the stereotypes." She'll continue to do so in the NFL.

The C-USA director of officiating even wanted her to not wear makeup.

"I thought he was crossing the line there," she said. "If Dean doesn't have any objections, I'll continue to tuck my hair. But I think my hair is the least of my concerns."

Right. It's about the game, about getting calls right.

There isn't an NFL fan who doesn't think an upgrade is needed in the officiating ranks. So why not start tapping into the other 50% of the population?

As Harbaugh said, "It's about time. Get these guys straightened out a little bit. Get some gals in there. She's a good ref, so it was a good choice."

Duties of an NFL line judge

Duties of an NFL line judge, the job Sarah Thomas will do in the coming season:

* operates on the side of the field opposite the linesman;

* responsible for the timing of the game (and becomes timekeeper if the scoreboard game clock malfunctions);

* responsible for detecting illegal motion or illegal shift;

* assists the linesman as to offside or encroachment;

* assists the umpire as to holding or illegal use of hands on the closest end of the line;

* assists the referee as to whether a pass is forward or backward, and with false starts;

* knows who the eligible pass receivers are;

* counts the number of offensive players to ensure there are no more than 11;

* marks all out-of-bounds spots along that sideline;

* supervises substitutions made by the team on that sideline;

* notifies the home-team coach when the second-half kickoff is five minutes away.

"A line judge is really responsible for everything along the line of scrimmage, so that reaction time has to be there, and the ability to process things quickly," said Dean Blandino, NFL's VP of officiating.

"The pro game is that much faster than the college game. The officials that we bring in, we expect them to be able to transition and adjust to that speed as quickly as possible."

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/JohnKryk

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