Shortly after she was officially hired by the NFL in 2015, Sarah Thomas claimed in an interview with NFL Media she never set out to be a trailblazer. Yet that’s exactly what the 47-year-old is as the league’s first full-time female official.
NFL referees and all other officials are not full-time league employees, as they technically work part-time from May through the end of each season with a dark period in between. Thomas being distinguished as the first full-time female NFL official separates her from Shannon Eastin, who became the first female to officiate an NFL game when she was hired as a replacement official (line judge) during the NFL Referees Association lockout of 2012.
Thomas is now a five-year NFL officiating veteran after rising through the college ranks. A Pascagoula, Miss., native, she began officiating youth and high school football games in Mississippi after graduating from the University of Mobile. She was hired by Conference USA in 2007 and officiated college football games until she reached the pros in 2015.
Gerry Austin, a former NFL official and the supervisor of Conference USA’s officials who hired Thomas, explained to ESPN shortly after she graduated to the NFL what makes her successful in officiating.
“She understood that the rules of the game of football should be applied within the spirit of the game and not within the technical writing of the rules,” Austin said. “I’ve always (stressed) understanding the spirit of rules and don’t be technical. If there’s a call to be made, have the courage to make the call, and she fit within that framework.
“And she has great communication skills. She has the ability to calm the coach down and to explain whatever the coach is questioning. More times than not, a coach just wants to vent. We try to give him his 15-20 seconds to vent and then ask, ‘What’s your question?’
“That’s a good skill, and Sarah has that skill. Coaches have confidence in Sarah’s ability to officiate in our conference, and I think that’s what’s helped her and carried her over to where she’s in the NFL.”
Thomas began her NFL officiating career as a line judge. In 2017, she switched to down judge, which is the position she continues to hold in 2020. She did serve as head linesman in the second half of the 2018 season.
In 2020, Thomas is the down judge on 19-year veteran referee John Hussey’s crew. The down judge lines up on the sideline and looks directly down the line of scrimmage. He or she directs the chain crew and informs the referee of the down and also rules on sideline plays on the nearest half of the field. Below is what the down judge watches on run plays, pass plays and special teams plays.
Run plays: Watches for offside or encroachment; monitors sideline; determines when/if a runner is out of bounds; marks runner’s forward progress.
Pass plays: Watches nearest receiver for first seven yards of his route until he is clear the point of legal contact for defensive backs; watches for pass interference.
Special teams: Watches for offside and encroachment; rules on penalties involving blockers and defenders on trick plays.
Courtesy of Pro Football Reference, below is Thomas’ complete NFL officiating record through last season.
Sarah Thomas games as NFL official
|September 13, 2015||Houston Texans||Kansas City Chiefs||Line Judge|
|September 20, 2015||Oakland Raiders||Baltimore Ravens||Line Judge|
|September 27, 2015||Dallas Cowboys||Atlanta Falcons||Line Judge|
|October 12, 2015||San Diego Chargers||Pittsburgh Steelers||Line Judge|
|October 18, 2015||New York Jets||Washington Redskins||Line Judge|
|October 25, 2015||St. Louis Rams||Cleveland Browns||Line Judge|
|October 29, 2015||New England Patriots||Miami Dolphins||Line Judge|
|November 15, 2015||Baltimore Ravens||Jacksonville Jaguars||Line Judge|
|November 22, 2015||Chicago Bears||Denver Broncos||Line Judge|
|November 29, 2015||San Francisco 49ers||Arizona Cardinals||Line Judge|
|December 6, 2015||New England Patriots||Philadelphia Eagles||Line Judge|
|December 13, 2015||Kansas City Chiefs||San Diego Chargers||Line Judge|
|December 21, 2015||New Orleans Saints||Detroit Lions||Line Judge|
|December 27, 2015||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Chicago Bears||Line Judge|
|January 3, 2016||Cleveland Browns||Pittsburgh Steelers||Line Judge|
|September 11, 2016||Atlanta Falcons||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Line Judge|
|September 19, 2016||Chicago Bears||Philadelphia Eagles||Line Judge|
|September 25, 2016||Seattle Seahawks||San Francisco 49ers||Line Judge|
|October 2, 2016||Washington Redskins||Cleveland Browns||Line Judge|
|October 9, 2016||Minnesota Vikings||Houston Texans||Line Judge|
|October 16, 2016||New York Giants||Baltimore Ravens||Line Judge|
|October 23, 2016||Jacksonville Jaguars||Oakland Raiders||Line Judge|
|November 6, 2016||Cleveland Browns||Dallas Cowboys||Line Judge|
|November 13, 2016||Tennessee Titans||Green Bay Packers||Line Judge|
|November 20, 2016||San Francisco 49ers||New England Patriots||Line Judge|
|November 27, 2016||Houston Texans||San Diego Chargers||Line Judge|
|December 4, 2016||Cincinnati Bengals||Philadelphia Eagles||Line Judge|
|December 11, 2016||Detroit Lions||Chicago Bears||Line Judge|
|December 18, 2016||Arizona Cardinals||New Orleans Saints||Line Judge|
|December 24, 2016||Green Bay Packers||Minnesota Vikings||Line Judge|
|September 10, 2017||Los Angeles Rams||Indianapolis Colts||Down Judge|
|September 17, 2017||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Chicago Bears||Down Judge|
|October 1, 2017||Cleveland Browns||Cincinnati Bengals||Down Judge|
|October 8, 2017||Houston Texans||Kansas City Chiefs||Down Judge|
|October 15, 2017||Minnesota Vikings||Green Bay Packers||Down Judge|
|October 22, 2017||San Francisco 49ers||Dallas Cowboys||Down Judge|
|November 5, 2017||Seattle Seahawks||Washington Redskins||Down Judge|
|November 12, 2017||Jacksonville Jaguars||Los Angeles Chargers||Down Judge|
|November 16, 2017||Pittsburgh Steelers||Tennessee Titans||Down Judge|
|November 26, 2017||New England Patriots||Miami Dolphins||Down Judge|
|December 3, 2017||Arizona Cardinals||Los Angeles Rams||Down Judge|
|December 17, 2017||New Orleans Saints||New York Jets||Down Judge|
|December 25, 2017||Philadelphia Eagles||Oakland Raiders||Down Judge|
|December 31, 2017||Baltimore Ravens||Cincinnati Bengals||Down Judge|
|September 10, 2018||Oakland Raiders||Los Angeles Rams||Down Judge|
|September 16, 2018||New Orleans Saints||Cleveland Browns||Down Judge|
|September 23, 2018||Baltimore Ravens||Denver Broncos||Down Judge|
|September 30, 2018||Los Angeles Chargers||San Francisco 49ers||Down Judge|
|October 11, 2018||New York Giants||Philadelphia Eagles||Down Judge|
|October 21, 2018||Jacksonville Jaguars||Houston Texans||Head Linesman|
|October 28, 2018||Los Angeles Rams||Green Bay Packers||Head Linesman|
|November 4, 2018||Cleveland Browns||Kansas City Chiefs||Head Linesman|
|November 11, 2018||New York Jets||Buffalo Bills||Head Linesman|
|November 22, 2018||Dallas Cowboys||Washington Redskins||Head Linesman|
|December 2, 2018||Cincinnati Bengals||Denver Broncos||Head Linesman|
|December 9, 2018||Oakland Raiders||Pittsburgh Steelers||Head Linesman|
|December 16, 2018||Baltimore Ravens||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Head Linesman|
|December 23, 2018||New York Jets||Green Bay Packers||Head Linesman|
|December 30, 2018||Seattle Seahawks||Arizona Cardinals||Head Linesman|
|January 13, 2019||New England Patriots||Los Angeles Chargers||Head Linesman|
|September 8, 2019||Philadelphia Eagles||Washington Redskins||Down Judge|
|September 15, 2019||Baltimore Ravens||Arizona Cardinals||Down Judge|
|September 22, 2019||Seattle Seahawks||New Orleans Saints||Down Judge|
|September 29, 2019||Denver Broncos||Jacksonville Jaguars||Down Judge|
|October 6, 2019||Dallas Cowboys||Green Bay Packers||Down Judge|
|October 20, 2019||Atlanta Falcons||Los Angeles Rams||Down Judge|
|October 28, 2019||Pittsburgh Steelers||Miami Dolphins||Down Judge|
|November 3, 2019||Carolina Panthers||Tennessee Titans||Down Judge|
|November 10, 2019||Cleveland Browns||Buffalo Bills||Down Judge|
|November 21, 2019||Houston Texans||Indianapolis Colts||Down Judge|
|December 1, 2019||Cincinnati Bengals||New York Jets||Down Judge|
|December 8, 2019||Arizona Cardinals||Pittsburgh Steelers||Down Judge|
|December 15, 2019||Los Angeles Chargers||Minnesota Vikings||Down Judge|
|December 22, 2019||Washington Redskins||New York Giants||Down Judge|
|December 29, 2019||Carolina Panthers||New Orleans Saints||Down Judge|
|January 11, 2020||San Francisco 49ers||Minnesota Vikings||Down Judge|