Commentary by Mark Schultz
This past season, line judge Sarah Thomas, the first permanent female official in the NFL, was a spokesperson for Activia yogurt. The commercials told the inspiring story of her journey to the NFL and how she broke the glass ceiling for women to officiate in the pros.
Thomas had extensive media availability on Radio Row leading up to Super Bowl LI. She talked about her journey to the pros. She also shared some career highlights. But, Thomas had an obligation to her sponsor and was closely followed by a public relations assistant who sat next to Thomas to make sure she wove her sponsor into the interview.
Her commercial agreement makes us ask: should active NFL officials be paid spokespeople for a corporation or product?
History of officials in commercials
This is not the first time active officials have appeared in commercials; however those instances were for charity or for a non-profit group. Referee Mike Carey spoke on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club of San Diego while an active referee.
In the 1980s, referees Gene Barth and Jerry Markbreit spoke for the United Way on behalf of the NFL.
Those announcements for a non-profit organization and a worthy cause.
Companies have paid NFL officials for commercials after they retired. Tommy Bell “officiated” live taste tests for Schlitz Beer in the early 1980s. Bell retired as a referee from the NFL after the 1976 season. Markbreit had a cameo in the Miller Lite “man law” campaign around 10 years after he retired.
Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira provided silent improvised officiating signals for Ford, which ran as preroll ads to NFL.com videos.
The NFL is very protective of its officials, forbidding them from talking to the media during the season. Thomas had a big media presence during commercial breaks this past season and during Super Bowl hype week. We are in uncharted waters.
Which could open up a huge controversy with other officials.
What if a company wants another official to be in a commercial? Will the NFL let them do it? That official can cite the Thomas commercials for precedent. What if the commercial is for a product that competes with “the official sponsor of the NFL?” Many officials work for major corporations or own their own company. (Barth’s corporate role was mentioned only generically.) Will the NFL let them put on the uniform and speak for a company they own? Or, how about the corporation they work for? What if an official gets x-amount of dollars to make Coke commercials? Will Pepsi pay another official double? If so, will officials compete for better endorsements?
And, what about the officials who want to do commercials but companies don’t want them? What if that official is on a crew with a zebra getting six figures for commercial endorsements? How will that crew get along?
Thinking of commercials while making calls?
Could having commercial endorsements impact an official on the field? Would a company drop the official as a paid spokesperson if they made a highly publicized error? Marketing departments hate controversy. Officials make calls by instinct. But, would fear of losing their commercial deal creep into the back of their mind if they take away the game-winning TD on a holding call?
This is America where free enterprise, free speech and entrepreneurship rule. But sometimes those attitudes have to take a back seat for the good of a group.
Short term, the Thomas commercial is good for her, good for the NFL and raises the profile of officials and women in officiating. But, allowing this commercial could give the NFL more headaches in the long term.