Sarah Thomas has blazed a trail in 25 football seasons. She started calling football in her native Mississippi in 1996. This Sunday, she officiates the biggest game of the year, Super Bowl LV.
When Thomas, 47, was in high school, she didn’t play football, but she was a star athlete. She played softball and basketball, and attended the University of Mobile on a basketball scholarship.
After college one of her brothers expressed interest in football officiating, and she decided to join him. For her it was a way to stay in involved in sports. In 1996 she started officiating grade school and high school junior varsity games. She worked her first high school varsity game in 1999.
Ready to retire
In 2006, Thomas was part of a crew officiating the Class 4A Mississippi State High School Football Championship. Having reached the peak of high school officiating, she was ready to retire to concentrate on her family and her job in pharmaceutical sales.
Joe Haynes, a former NFL official, watched Thomas work the state championship and phoned NFL referee and Conference USA supervisor of officials Gerald Austin. Haynes gave his scouting report on Thomas and encouraged Austin to take a look at her for a potential position as a college football official.
Austin called Thomas and invited her to a college officiating clinic. After the clinic, Austin hired her into Conference USA for 2007.
Before an official is hired in the football bowl subdivision (FBS), they usually go through several years of Division III, Division II and/or Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) ball before joining a major FBS conference.
Thomas went right into the FBS.
Thomas added more snaps to her résumé by working in the now-defunct United Football League in 2010.
After a few seasons and postseason bowl games, Thomas was invited to join the NFL’s Officiating Development Program (ODP) in 2013. This is where the NFL takes a close look at prospective candidates for future openings on the officiating staff.
It looked like Thomas was on the fast track to the NFL, but she came back to the ODP for the 2014 season. The NFL knew fully what hiring Thomas would mean socially, so they made sure she was fully ready. They could not afford to have a trailblazing official fail. After one more season in the ODP and college football, Dean Blandino hired Thomas as the first woman as a permanent NFL official in 2015 at the line judge position. (Shannon Eastin, a replacement official for three regular season games in 2012, was the first.)
Many people said this was a rushed, or social justice hire. But Thomas proved to be an adept student and official. Speaking to ESPN in 2015, Austin spoke highly of Thomas’ skills.
She has the ability to calm the coach down and to explain whatever the coach is questioning. More times than not, a coach just wants to vent. We try to give him his 15-20 seconds to vent and then ask, ‘What’s your question?’ That’s a good skill, and Sarah has that skill. Coaches have confidence in Sarah’s ability to officiate in our conference, and I think that’s what’s helped her and carried her over to where she’s in the NFL.
As always, becoming a NFL official has a steep learning curve. Many veterans say it takes five years for a new official to feel completely comfortable calling the pro game.
Thomas was on Pete Morelli’s crew for her rookie season. That first season featured the usual rookie mistakes, but one was particularly noticeable. During a Week 15 game between the Lions and Saints, coaches on Thomas’ sideline called for a time out. The team was out of time outs. Thomas mistakenly stopped the clock during the two-minute drill and granted a fourth time out. (This call plus another similar error by another crew lead to a rule change in the following offseason. It is now a delay of game foul if the official erroneously grants the timeout in this situation.)
The NFL never reveals an official’s grades publicly and rookie officials are not eligible for a playoff game. However, a couple of sources told Football Zebras in 2016 that the actual grades for every official were inadvertently revealed to the officiating staff. According to those two sources, Thomas finished out 17th out of 17 line judges that season.
Thomas worked on Jeff Triplette’s crew in 2016. She showed improvement during the season, but there were still some growing pains into the fast pace of the NFL, typical of an average official. One call that could not be determined right or wrong, but obviously drew controversy, was a quick decision on a fumble recovery. She signaled possession for Washington when the Browns emerged from the pile with the ball. The unusual nature of the call just added fuel to the controversy, but there was no way to grade the call as an incorrect, although there was an issue with the mechanics of the quick signal.
Her second season was cut short when she broke her wrist in a nasty sideline collision.
Because of the timing of the injury at the end of the season, Thomas didn’t get assigned a playoff game. There is word that she might have gotten a wild card playoff game if not for her injury, but there was no certainty — as there was from the previous season — how she graded at her position.
In the 2017 season she was moved to the down judge position, and with that the NFL realized that the term “head linesman” came across as too gender specific. In that season, there was a bit of a mismatch on officiating mechanics, as she ruled a pass incomplete while the line judge ruled a backward pass. This brought up comparisons to the fumble ruling from the previous season, because this play also significantly disadvantaged the Browns. Replay demurred on reversing to a backward pass and recovery, but this had every appearance of a quick whistle.
During Super Bowl week in 2017, Thomas served as a spokesperson for Activia yogurt. It was the first time an active official made a commercial for a for-profit company. This also created a heated debate within the officiating union, since all other officials were barred from endorsements. Triplette and rest of his crew were paid as extras for their appearance in the commercial.
Thomas was assigned as an alternate official for 2017 wild card playoffs. After 2017 she served on crews lead by referees Ron Torbert and Shawn Hochuli.
With some of the high profile bumps of her first three seasons in the rear-view mirror, she finally broke through and was assigned the Chargers-Patriots divisional playoff game, breaking the gender wall in the postseason. Two more divisional playoff assignments followed in 2019 and 2020.
Those three postseason assignments were enough to qualify Thomas for a Super Bowl assignment at the end of the upcoming 2021 season. An official qualifies for the Super Bowl by the 5th season with either a conference championship game in any season or 3 postseason assignments in the previous 5 seasons.
In addition to grades, there are a lot of intangible factors including decisiveness, using proper officiating mechanics, and maintaining the pace of the game. It is impossible to know exactly where Thomas ranked among the 17 down judges, but she at least achieved the top tier — up to the 4th or 5th graded — by their reckoning, and not necessarily the #1 spot. Technically she earns her Super Bowl qualification next season, but it seems the league slightly relaxed their rules this year; only two exceptions were made since this criteria was implemented around 2007.
On January 19 came the call every football official dreams about.
All eyes on the field on Sunday
When the NFL made the Super Bowl LV officiating assignments, senior vice presidents Walt Anderson, Al Riveron, and Perry Fewell all knew the implications of assigning all of the Super Bowl officials. Questions asking if they were rushing history are legitimate, as an exception to the assignment criteria might be made for an official with exemplary performance over a sustained period. That said, the officiating department also assigned field judge James Coleman to this Super Bowl with a spottier postseason slate. (Coleman has worked 2 playoff games in the previous 6 seasons, and has never worked a conference championship.)
The officiating leadership is also aware that this can evoke memories of a similar situation eight years ago when the league made several concessions in grading, which lead to Jerome Boger being assigned the referee for Super Bowl XLVII.
If Thomas does a good job on Sunday we will hear, “Well, she’s supposed to do a good job.” If she would happen to make a mistake, the pressure and criticism — both of the justified and sexist varieties — will be deafening.
A lot is riding on this assignment. But remember this: You can’t hide a bad official. You can’t hide a good one either.
When the teams take the field, it is not going to matter one bit how she got there. Sarah Thomas has earned her way here. She is the official that the league determined should be at the down judge position in the most important game of the season.
Officiating has a lot to be proud of with Sarah Thomas being selected for the Super Bowl crew. She has worked under an intense spotlight, and she has not withered from the pressure. She has been navigating boos, raised eyebrows, ignorant comments and broken bones. She did not have a smooth transition from college to pro, but only a very few make that step without stumbling a little. The question to any official is, can you improve yourself as an official each year, and Thomas definitely has stepped up. She has the ability to match the level of the game.
Who knows. On Sunday, some high school or college student will be watching the Super Bowl. She will see Thomas and be inspired. And, some day in the future she will officiate a Super Bowl and no one will bat an eye.
Images: Top, Chad Young for Football Zebras/ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo; bottom, Las Vegas Raiders photo