The National Football League (NFL) on Wednesday said it would hire a woman for the first time to officiate games full-time for the most popular U.S. sport.
Sarah Thomas, 41, will join the NFL as a line judge after officiating in Conference USA, a college league, since 2007, the league said.
“I did not set out to become an NFL official,” said Thomas, who has been working in the NFL's Officiating Development Program. “The further I went along in the progression, getting into Conference USA, part of me thought it may become a reality.”
But my goal has always been to be the best line judge I could be.”
Shannon Eastin was the NFL's first female official, serving as a line judge for the first three games of the 2012 season. She was hired as a replacement official during the lockout of full-time referees in a labor dispute.
“I do honor the fact that many people consider me a trailblazer,” said Thomas, a Mississippi native. “But I've been doing this because I love it. When you're out there officiating, the guys don't think of me as a female. They want me to be just like them - just be an official.”
The NFL has come under withering criticism by women's groups and others during the past year for lenient punishments handed out by Commissioner Roger Goodell to players involved in domestic violence.
In response, the NFL strengthened its sanctions and hired four women to help shape league policy, including Lisa Friel, the former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney's Office.
Dan Blandino, NFL vice president of officiating, denied the criticism from women triggered Thomas's hiring.
“This is not something that happened overnight,” he said. “Sarah has been officiating for 20 years. She's been on our radar screen for eight to nine years. We feel that she's ready.”
The number of the NFL's female followers has increased dramatically in recent years and the league estimates that 43 percent of fans of the testosterone-dominated sport are women.
Since being an NFL official is a part-time job, Thomas, a married mother of three, works full-time as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
Conference USA asked Thomas to tuck her hair under her hat to avoid “stereotypes,” she said, adding that she has been comfortable doing it and will also do it in the NFL.
“My hair is the least of my concerns,” she said.