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NFL ready to break the ‘grass ceiling’ again

Sarah Thomas officiates a practice at Colts minicamp on June 13.
Sarah Thomas officiates a practice at Colts minicamp on June 13.

Much like any potential official recruit, Sarah Thomas has been on the NFL’s watchlist for several years. She is one step closer to becoming the league’s first permanent female official, having worn an NFL uniform in a Colts practice.

Thomas is part of an apprenticeship program that was formed under the collective bargaining agreement signed with the NFL Referees Association last year. The league wanted this taxi squad of 21 college officials — the equivalent of three full crews — to shadow the established crews through the season. While the NFL did get the program as a part of the union agreement, the implementation of the program was reshaped by the labor talks. The league declined to discuss exactly how the program would operate, but vice-president of officiating Dean Blandino suggested we may see some of these officials during the preseason for a few series. Although not confirmed, Thomas will probably continue to work her Conference USA position, while getting supplementary training from the NFL.

Thomas also worked in the United Football League under officiating director Larry Upson, who also hired a second female official three years before the NFL hired their first.

Should they hire Thomas for an on-field position, it would partially erase the clumsily awarded milestone of first female league official to Shannon Eastin last summer. Eastin was hired as a temporary replacement official while the union’s labor negotiations broke down with the NFL, causing the union officials to be locked out. Eastin, while certainly a good official by virtue of being called up as a replacement, wound up cutting to the front of the line for the honor under the circumstances. She was not fully vetted by the league and lacked the requisite experience she would have needed had she been an ordinary hire. Once the union officials returned to the field, Eastin would become but a trivia answer, because the league most likely would not hire someone who essentially worked on the other side of the picket line.

By taking a mulligan, the league keeps the female-official conversation going for another year by moving Thomas into the taxi squad program. She could get called up in 2014 season if a line judge or, perhaps, a head linesman vacancy occurs in the next offseason. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait until 2017, as we originally speculated.

Image: Matt Bowen/Indianapolis Colts

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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2 thoughts on “NFL ready to break the ‘grass ceiling’ again

  1. The only issue I see with this is her trying to command respect from the players and coaches. Lets face it, some athletes have egos the size of texas and are so obsessed with their own abilities that they think others are just inferior (let alone women). This can lead to an ultra shovanistic attitude. I would hope that players and coaches could adjust to having a female official. I just think that it has the potential to be an ugly transition. I hope we do not have to wait until 2017 to see.

  2. I think that there may be some isolated friction on the field to begin with. But Thomas is used to this behavior every time she elevates to a new level. Based on her prior experience, she should be able to silence her critics quickly by demonstrating that she is ready for the next level. That is why she is on the shortlist to make it to the pros.

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