TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Sarah Thomas has been blazing the trail for female officials since before these latest NFL rookies were born. Now, she’s seen her hard work pay-off as she earned a spot on the Super Bowl officiating crew — the pinnacle of an NFL official’s career.
Where it gets even more impressive still, is that in doing so, Thomas became the first woman to reach this milestone.
“It was wonderful,” Thomas said. “Everybody that was assigned that game– the entire crew, and replay, the alternates– it’s one that you hope at some point during your career you get the call to work a Super Bowl because you want to rank-out No. 1 at your position. All of us do at any occupation, right? But knowing that this was a historic moment is just that much more impactful.”
NFL officials are graded on every play throughout the season, and it’s the culmination of those grades that determines who’s selected at each position for this final game. Thomas’s exemplary work as a down judge, in her sixth season as a full-time NFL referee, earned her the top-ranking amongst the 17 down judges in the league.
Not only did she make it to this big stage, but Thomas and her crew performed at a level she was very proud of.
“I feel great about it,” Thomas said. “I feel great about the crew. Our motto before we went out was ‘We need to be elite,’ because this is an elite game. These players are elite at what they do and when we left that field we did that. We had an elite performance.”
Another point of pride for Thomas is knowing she’s paving the way for other women who want to follow in her footsteps, including her daughter. She wants to show that she is just as capable as all the men in her industry to be on those sidelines on game day.
“I don’t ever go out trying to prove people wrong,” Thomas said, “but I do know that I need to prove that I belong.”
One seemingly small indication of how far she’s come is the fact that she now proudly shows her long, blonde ponytail on game days– something she did not do until this season. When she first started out in the league, she was told by a supervisor to keep her hair tucked-up as to not stand-out as a woman on the sidelines.
“He wanted me to tuck my hair so they didn’t immediately go ‘Oh, why’s a girl out here. She can’t do that,’ to protect me if you will,” Thomas shared. “And I respect him for that. But when he told me to wear little or no makeup, I said there’s no way. I’m not going to do that.”
When the league allowed snap-back hats for officials instead of fitted caps, and social issues surrounding inclusion came to the forefront this season, it was time to let the ponytail wave proudly.
“With everything going on in 2020 and the social injustice and diversity, the timing was just perfect,” Thomas said. “You can be feminine and beautiful but you can also tote your own if you will. But you’re right, it’s earning that respect to say, ‘It’s not about her being a female. It’s about her being an official and just let her be a female.'”
Her determination to excel and professionalism over the years has earned her that respect across the league — from players to coaches and fellow officials.
“It’s what you want when you’re officiating in the NFL, college, where ever you may be officiating and really in any occupation,” Thomas said. “You want the respect of those that know that you are managing or leading…. Ever since I’ve been in the NFL, there have been more congratulations to me or ‘Sarah, it’s an honor to be on the field with you,’ or ‘I’ve got daughters and they’re watching you,’ and ‘It means a lot to me what you’re doing.’ It’s been that more than anything negative.”