The National Football League (NFL) on Wednesday said it would hire a woman for the first time to officiate games full-time.
Sarah Thomas, 41, is to join the NFL as a line judge after officiating in Conference USA, a college league, since 2007, the NFL 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,” she said.
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, 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,” said Thomas, a Mississippi native.
The league has come under criticism by women’s groups and others during the past year for lenient punishments handed out by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to players involved in domestic violence.
In response, the NFL increased 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.
NFL vice president of officiating Dan Blandino denied the criticism triggered Thomas’ 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 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 would also do it in the NFL.
“My hair is the least of my concerns,” she said.
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