Football Zebras exclusive
[Editor’s note: This feature was posted prior to the AAF suspending operations.]
Amanda Sauer-Cook entered into officiating because she loved the game, but she had no idea when she started that she would someday be a trailblazer that opens doors at the highest levels of football.
As the Alliance of American Football took the field the week after the Super Bowl, they hired six crews of eight officials each from the major college conferences. Working as the center judge with her ponytail bobbing out of her cap, one thing is readily obvious — the AAF has four women on their officiating crews, including replay — but Sauer-Cook is breaking new ground as the first openly gay official to work in a major national professional football league.Embed from Getty Images
While watching a high school football game with her daughters, she saw a block that the officials didn’t call. “That’s an illegal block!” Sauer-Cook screamed from the sideline. Apparently, she was heard.
After her enthusiastic proclamation, someone said, “Hey, you should start going to football officiating meetings,” which she did. Amanda began attending meetings to become a high school referee in Westchester County, N.Y. A women’s clinic for officials there helped her realize that officiating football was her passion.
I can relate to this. I got my start in football officiating while yelling at a TV in Atlanta during an NFL game during the fall of 2010. The head of officials for the Atlanta chapter of the National Gay Flag Football League was there, heard me, and suggested I come help out on the weekends.
Amanda’s path is one that has seen its share of heartbreak. Amanda’s first marriage was to Peter Sauer, a forward on the 1998 Stanford team that made the Final Four. After celebrating their 11th wedding anniversary, and at the young age of 35, Peter suddenly and unexpectedly passed away, collapsing after he took a jump shot in a recreational basketball game in 2012. Peter and Amanda shared a love and passion for football, and that love for the game could’ve ended there, but it did not.
Not long after, in 2014, Sauer-Cook’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with melanoma. Given this set of circumstances, it’s hard to fathom going through this kind of grief and despair, and still finding the courage and determination to continue following aspirations of joining the most elite of football officials. For the first year, she was by her daughter’s side through one full month of chemotherapy every day, followed by three times a week, all while her daughter only missed school for surgery. Amanda is proud that now, at age 14, her daughter is “healthy, taller than I am, and a novice rowing champion.”
“She is my rock, she is my role model and an inspiration to keep going,” she says of her daughter.
While working high school games, she thought about her future and what she could do beyond high school games. During an officiating clinic she was attending in nearby Staten Island, she was introduced to Sarah Thomas. It is widely known that Thomas is the first permanent female official hired by the NFL, but she actually worked first in the United Football League in 2010-11 under officiating supervisor Larry Upson. In addition to Thomas, it was the UFL that first broke the professional football “grass ceiling” for women officials when Upson hired Terri Valenti, a current replay official in both the NFL and AAF.
“Sarah paved the way. She introduced me to Gerald Austin and we absolutely hit it off,” said Amanda. Austin, a retired NFL referee and the former rules analyst on Monday Night Football, is the supervisor of officials for Conference USA and once had Thomas in his program.
After that meeting, Austin hired Amanda to work for Conference USA, and from there she moved to the Mid-American Conference and Big Ten Conference, which are part of the Collegiate Officiating Consortium managed by Bill Carrollo, another former NFL referee. “I have incredible respect for Bill, and I trust his guidance and knowledge of the game,” she said. “I work hard to be my best and am honored to be a part of the COC.”
In 2017, Amanda became the first woman at the referee position in a Division I game when Morgan State visited Rutgers.
Today, Amanda is clearing a path not only for women who are underrepresented in officiating, but also for LGBTQ officials who want to make their way up to college and professional football.
Before she joined the college circuit, Amanda and her daughters moved to her hometown in Pittsburgh. It was there that Amanda met her future wife, Michelle Cook, one of her daughter’s teachers. Becoming close friends for years before they developed a relationship, Amanda and Michelle shared a love for the game. At the time, Michelle was a running back for the Pittsburgh Passion, a team in the Women’s Football Alliance.
“She brings a great perspective of being a player when we discuss fouls or other issues that may arise in the field,” Amanda says about her wife.
I was curious how her daughters feel about Michelle. Amanda says, “The girls have incredible love for her and for us together. She makes me the strong, independent, and fiercely driven woman that I am both on and off of the football field.”
Amanda and Michelle were married last June.Embed from Getty Images
Amanda Sauer-Cook is as approachable, humble, and pleasant on the field as she is off. Like most of us, she wants to be seen as just another official on the field.
“I want to be the best official I can be. I haven’t had any really negative experiences with coaches or players making comments regarding the fact I’m a woman,” she says. “I don’t get anything more than the guys get.” So, yes, coaches and players on the sidelines will jeer, yell, and scream at the officials, and Amanda is equipped to handle it like any other official on the field in stripes.
With Sauer-Cook’s entrance into professional football, and Sarah Thomas’s entrance into the NFL, I wondered what she would say to other women who could be just as interested in officiating as her, but not ready to make the leap. “Women can do it just as well as men can,” she said. “Half of the viewing population of football is women, so we know the sport, and they should be encouraged to participate — maybe that includes them being an official.”
Like most younger officials, Amanda aspires to one day be an NFL official. “Any college official would say the same,” she says. Amanda has, in fact, shown up on the NFL officiating scouts’ radar. In 2017, she worked in the NFL Officiating Development Program. The ODP began in 2012 as a way to develop promising college officials by having them work with NFL officials in training camps and preseason practices, with a few lucky ones getting a preseason game. The NFL has hired exclusively from ODP participants since it was launched, which included Sarah Thomas.Embed from Getty Images
Crediting those who run the AAF and their officiating crews, who pulled several ODP officials into their rosters, Amanda says “They have done a really, really good job. It’s been done so well by those in charge and I’m proud to be part of it.”
The officiating operations are overseen by two former NFL vice presidents of officiating. Mike Periera is listed as a consultant, but has authority over the AAF officials, assisted by Dean Blandino. The day-to-day operations are handled by the coordinator of officials Steve Strimling, a referee in the Pac-12. All three were involved in the recruitment and hiring process for the AAF officiating crews.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the AAF folks; still no better people to learn from,” says Strimling. “This [league] is all about teaching; college conference officials get into bigger games on grades and ranking, and that’s not how it is here. Through Mike and Dean, this is going to be Division I officials just getting better and just by getting better, they’ll continue to progress in their respective conferences.”
“There’s no better pure officiating program in the country,” Strimling said. He is absolutely right. When the NFL Europe league folded in 2007, it ended a valuable training and development ground for officials to work several pro games alongside seasoned NFL veterans. The referees of the last three Super Bowls all cut their teeth at the pro level in NFL Europe. The AAF is not formally connected with the NFL, but no doubt the NFL is watching closely for their future officials.
Strimling, himself, is forging new territory for the LGBTQ community as someone in a front-office role in a professional league. He has had similar experiences to Sauer-Cook since coming out. He still sees the most important part of his job being putting on the stripes and calling the best game that he can. Like Sauer-Cook, he hasn’t had much trouble on the field related to his sexual orientation.
“Since I came out at 20, [being gay] on the field has never been an issue, and it has never been a deterrent,” he said.
Amanda and I were able to connect on a personal level — though in different stages of our officiating careers. We’re both LGBTQ football officials, we both want to get on the field and, as she said, we want be the best officials we can be. As the first LGBTQ football official in a professional league, she’s certainly blazing the path for those coming behind her. In eight years, Sauer-Cook went from a screaming mom on the sidelines of a game to an official in the AAF.
She is inspiring, thoughtful, and a testament to those who wish to follow their dreams regardless of gender or sexual orientation. To those who follow that path, if you see officials missed an illegal block, speak up. Just do it respectfully, please.
Football Zebras writer Josh Lewis has officiated in adult flag-football leagues, including the National Flag Football League of Atlanta, the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association, the New York Gay Football League, and the National Gay Flag Football League. He was the coordinator of officials in last year’s Pride Bowl XI.
Header image by Ben Austro, who also contributed to this report. Family photos provided by Amanda Sauer-Cook.