On February 7, National Football League (NFL) official Sarah Thomas crossed yet another gender barrier in football by becoming the first woman to ever referee in the Super Bowl as a down judge in Super Bowl LV. At 47 years old, Thomas is not new to breaking football’s gender barriers. In 2009, she was the only female to referee a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 Football game; in 2015, she became the first female full-time referee in the NFL; and in 2019, she became the first woman to officiate an NFL playoff game.
In almost every article I have read about Thomas in the past few days, writers have claimed that Thomas is “breaking football’s glass ceiling” by refereeing in the Super Bowl. However, I think Thomas’s metaphorical breaking goes much further and deeper than this past Sunday. Personally, I believe Thomas first shattered football’s glass ceiling all the way back in 2009, when she became the first female to referee in Division 1 Football. I believe she shattered the glass again in 2015 when she was hired as the first full-time female referee in the history of the NFL. Refereeing in Super Bowl LV is only Thomas’s latest achievement in her groundbreaking career.
It is no secret that football has stereotypically been a man’s game, so it should come as no surprise that officiating would be just as male-dominated. Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of women in officiating is another well-told tale across the sports world. It wasn’t until 2006 that a female was first allowed to officiate a National Basketball Association playoff game. Similarly, until 2016, the Fédération Internationale Football Association trained their male and female referees separately. Finally, this same underrepresentation appears in hockey, where there has not been a female referee in a National Hockey League game since 1999.
What’s even more unfortunate than this underrepresentation is that the women who manage to overcome the odds and become officials are often disrespected and disregarded. Bibiana Steinhaus, a German soccer referee who is highly regarded as one of the best referees in the world, has had male players untie her shoes during matches, make sexist remarks towards her, and has even been told that “Women have no place in men’s football.”
Four times throughout her career, Thomas has made history. Although her latest accomplishment may be the most publicized, her past achievements must not be overlooked. Thomas has been a hero for women and girls everywhere because she’s managed to change the status quo in one of the world’s most male-dominated sports through her relentlessness and courage. Thomas has made a lasting impact on the world of football and has even been named one of Sports Illustrated’s 100 most influential NFL figures of all time.
According to Keppler Speakers, “Since joining the NFL’s roster of officials, [Thomas] has become a trail-blazing inspiration to women everywhere, embodying the notion that with [self] belief, inner drive, hard work, preparation, and a mindset of being the best you can be, no barrier or ceiling is impenetrable.”
Thomas has been a fearless leader in the effort to change sexism in officiating and she’s become a beacon of hope for women and girls everywhere looking to pursue a career in male-dominated sports. Whether it be officiating, coaching, or playing, Thomas is leading the way to make changes that are long overdue.