The NFL is entering a significant season in 2015, as the league welcomes its first female official and its first female coach. In April, the NFL hired Sarah Thomas as one of eight new referees on staff. In July, Jen Walter joined the Arizona Cardinals staff as an intern coaching middle linebackers. Although the internship did not end in a long-term position, I would not be surprised if she finds a role soon.
Since the news about Thomas broke, I’ve had a number of people ask me my opinion on these two women pioneering their field. The question is natural, as I am pursuing a career in sports journalism, a field that tends to be more heavily dominated by men. There are certainly more and more women appearing in sports media every day, however, so I cannot draw an equal comparison.
In asking my thoughts, I think many people assumed I would be ecstatic about the decision. I think many people were surprised at my hesitation and mixed feelings.
When it comes to knowing her trade, Thomas cannot be accused of being under-qualified or under-experienced. She’s also no stranger to being the first in her field.
Thomas comes to the NFL with experience officiating at the high school level in Mississippi—she was the first woman in the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association—and 10 years later was selected as the first female referee for a major college football game. Thomas was the first woman to referee at a college Bowl game and the first to officiate in a Big Ten stadium.
Thomas, who played basketball at the University of Mobile, found herself drawn to the industry when she followed her brother to an officials meeting.
“It was life-changing for me when I saw that officials took time and pride to make the game better,” Thomas said. “That is what drew me in, especially being a former athlete. And I couldn’t have asked for better training (than in my time as a high school official in Mississippi).”