HYPE speaker: Destroying gender barriers in the NFL

Sarah Thomas will be known throughout history as the first female official in the NFL. She has sets of entire uniforms, flags and all, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While the title is glamorous and well deserved, Thomas had a rather difficult path in gaining acceptance in a male-dominated industry. 

Throughout Thomas’s entire life, she has had men telling her she couldn’t be a part of a sport because she was a woman. But that never stopped her. In fact, it fueled her determination. That “believe in yourself” approach -- “See it – believe it – you can be it” -- was reflected in her key message to Heidelberg students Thursday as the final speaker in this year’s HYPE Career Ready® program.

Born and raised competitive

“Yes, those three letters behind my name forever changed my life, but my journey started long before,” she says.

Starting at the age of 5, Thomas and her brothers were heavily invested in sports; every season they were involved a different sport. Following her brothers, she developed a toughness that ultimately took her a long way as an athlete. When she was in the fifth grade, she wanted to try out for basketball. However, there wasn’t a girls’ team, so her family suggested trying out for the boys’ team. After tryouts, the coach told her she couldn’t play because she was a girl. When Thomas brought the news home to her father, he loaded her back up into the truck, drove back to the gym and gave the coach a piece of his mind. Mortified at the display, Thomas was allowed on the “B” team, which she dominated.

“I was blessed to be in a family where sports is what we do. … I am fortunate for how I was raised,” she said.

From that moment forward, she played throughout high school and dominated the game – so much so that she continued on after high school at NAIA Division I University of Mobile.

Upon graduating, Thomas still craved the competitive atmosphere. Wanting to continue playing, she joined a men’s church basketball league in which she played for three years. After the third year, Thomas was voted out of the league because it was said by other players in the league that she made them uncomfortable when playing.

What Thomas didn’t realize was that by stepping away from her church league, she was stepping into a life-changing situation.

Evening the odds

She decided to join her brother at a football officiating meeting and found herself “intrigued” because “I hated officials when I played sports, and they probably hated me too.” She decided to pursue officiating because “once you start something, you don’t quit.”

Thomas spent 10 seasons officiating at the high school level, working her way up the ranks. At the end of those 10 years, she had finally worked her last game, or so she thought. Four short days after her last high school game, a call from an NFL official scout came, saying he thought she had what it takes to make it to the next level. He stated that her field presence is what had set her apart from the rest of the crew.

Thomas told students, “the word NFL got my attention.”

This recruiter’s name was Gerald Austin, who had officiated in the NFL from 1982 until 2007. Over the call, Austin asked Thomas to walk him through a play and ended up hiring her on the spot, sight unseen. He thought she had a strong character and was coachable.

With her officiating career on the rise, Thomas was faced with yet another challenge when she got pregnant in 2012. “Everyone was telling me I was done, (with officiating),” she said. Four months later, she got a call to work in the NFL’s Developmental Program.

In 2015, Thomas officiated her first NFL game – a contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans. Her next momentous achievement happened in 2019, when she was selected as a down judge for a 2019 New England Patriots-San Diego Chargers playoff game. She reached the pinnacle – and shattered yet another barrier – when she was selected to officiate Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

Thomas has now completed her seventh season as an NFL official, and for her, “it’s been a heck of a ride.”

Embrace the ponytail

When Thomas was hired into the NFL, she was told to tuck her long hair into her fitted hat. She didn’t really know why at first, but over the years she figured out that Austin was in a way protecting her from the gender biases she would have encountered.

As other women started to join NFL officiating crews, Thomas, being a superstitious person, continued to tuck her hair into her hat even as other women did not. She was approached by a woman who worked higher in the NFL and she asked if someone within the NFL had told her to tuck her hair. When Thomas said no, the woman asked if Thomas would wear her hair down. Thomas told her to send her a snapback hat and she would.

Thus, in 2020, Sarah Thomas was able to wear her hair in a ponytail in response to the NFL’s initiatives against racism, which she says, “feels a whole lot better.”

A few life lessons

Thomas left Heidelberg students with several important messages that she believes will lead them on the path to successful lives and careers: 

Do not go through life trying to prove people wrong. You will exhaust yourself and the list will never end. Just prove to yourself that you belong.
Don’t move through life trying to do things for the recognition. Put in the work and the recognition will come.
Make choices to do things because you love what you’re doing.
Success only comes before work in the dictionary. Put in the work.
Comparison is the thief of all joy. When you compare yourself to others, you will always be miserable and you’ll be unsuccessful at being a leader.

—    By Bailey Walter ‘22

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