Updated: NFL Introduces Sarah Thomas to Media

Sarah ThomasSarah Thomas, the NFL’s first full time female official, was introduced to the media on Wednesday. Thomas is part of a new class of nine incoming new officials from the NFL’s developmental program. In 2014, the NFL introduced thirteen new officials and three new referees. That in addition to the nine new officials in 2015 represents significant turnover among the 119 rank and file.

We previewed Thomas here and wrote about her full time hiring here. Now, we have a chance to introduce you to Thomas and you won’t be disappointed. The NFL didn’t hire her on a whim and she is well prepared for the job ahead of her. She just wants to be known as the best official she can possibly be.

Here is the full transcript of her interview:




Signora: Good afternoon to all of you and thank you for joining us. We’ll have Sarah Thomas and our Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino available to answer your questions. Before we begin I’ll just give you a little bit of background on Sarah. Sarah Thomas was today named one of nine new officials that will be part of the NFL’s officiating roster in 2015. Sarah will be a line judge in the upcoming season. She was part of the league’s officiating development program in 2013 and 2014 and that’s a program that identifies the highest performing college football officials and supports their officiating development through a series of on the field and off the field training initiatives. Sarah started her officiating career in the early 1990s, which she’ll tell you about here shortly, and then in 1996 became the first female to officiate in a Division-1A high school football game in Mississippi. She was officiating in college in 2007 when she was hired by Conference USA and has officiated as a line judge and head linesman during her collegiate career. She has an extensive history in bowl games and has also worked in the United Football League prior to becoming a full-time NFL game official. So we will get to Sarah momentarily, but first we wanted to have Dean describe a little bit about the process that he goes through and his staff goes through in the hiring of new officials.

Blandino: Thanks, Mike. So as Mike mentioned, we have an officiating development program and we have an extensive scouting program that branches out all over the country and it was part of that program where one of our scouts first saw Sarah working a high school championship game and then she basically worked her way through that process into the advanced development group which is the top of that program where top college officials are given an opportunity to go to NFL training camps, minicamps, offseason activities and actually work preseason games so when we do bring them into the league, they have already experienced the NFL game on the field. And they spent a weekend with the crew and they go through all of the pregame routines, the pregame meetings and so it’s not the first time when we actually do bring them into the league. And so that’s part of our process that we go through. We have over 6,000 officials in our scouting program. There are 21 at the top level which Sarah was a part of the last two years and we pull from that group when we have openings in the league and that’s where the nine first-year officials have all come from.

Signora: Thanks, Dean. We’ll get to your questions momentarily but before we do, we’ll just ask Sarah to tell everyone what it was like when she got that call from Dean about joining the NFL staff.

Thomas: Thanks Mike and Dean and everyone on the call. That call came Thursday, April 2 at 10:47 a.m. and when I looked at my phone and it was area code 212 I was just praying that it was Dean Blandino on the other end of the line and it was, and he just said it was an honor to make this call like to all of my other colleagues that were invited in this year and it was an honor for me to have received it. So, I tell my girlfriends and family that I was speechless and it’s hard for them to believe that, but it was just an honor and a humbling experience and I’m glad I got the call.

Signora: Thanks, Sarah. Ok we’ll open up the line now for questions for Sarah and Dean.

Hey Sarah, congratulations to you. I know we’ve spoken in the past, this question is actually for Dean I’m sure a lot of people are going to get to you, but for Dean I’m working on a story on Bart Longson and his becoming another one of the first-year officials. I was wondering if you could tell me what stood out about Bart’s performance and to what degree do you consider your officials outside careers or accomplishments when you consider are they going to be a good fit for the NFL?

Blandino: What stood out about Bart, which we really look for in all of our perspective game officials, is that presence on the field. Not being intimidated. There are a lot of outside surroundings and things that officials have to block out and they have to focus on their area of responsibility and Bart, just like our other first-year officials, showed poise and professionalism and was able to really stand out in that way. We do look at the overall picture. We’re not just hiring game officials, we’re hiring people who are going to represent the NFL. And so what they do in their other professions, how they conduct themselves and the successes that they’ve had, we certainly look at that. Bart’s been very successful in his business and has conducted himself in a way that we feel is in line with the core values of the NFL and all of the officials that we hire, we really take that very seriously before we bring them into the league.

I wonder if you go back to sort of your childhood and I understand you have at least one brother, maybe more, who both played football and officiated football. What type of influence was that on you and also maybe what sort of influence the NFL officials in your past to this point?  

Thomas: Sure, thanks Sam. Yes, I grew up with brothers that were athletes and football was just a part of our family growing up and like I’ve always said, I never set out to be a football official nor did I want to play football. I was involved with softball and basketball, but both my brothers are currently now football officials as well, small college level, so we’re all affiliated with officiating and as far as NFL officials that I looked up to and I still will look up to, yes there are several of them and I’m just honored to be a part of this group now.

One of the questions I had is – obviously your appointment has been announced today – we haven’t yet seen a female umpire in the MLB and I was curious to get your thoughts on that and whether or not you feel that you being named an NFL official can hopefully spur similar progressions in the other leagues as well?

Thomas: I will tell you, I’m not certain if my announcement will open up the doors for any other professional sports, but I will tell you that in my experience with Dean Blandino and the National Football League that the developmental program that they had put in place has definitely helped in the progression of all officials and so I would hope that the professional sports across the country would look at the best officials regardless of race or gender.

I was wondering if you could elaborate on your sports background, I know you said you played softball and basketball. What was your level of interest in all sports? And also I wonder how you handle any potential challenging situations in this field that are related to your gender.

Thomas: Thank you so much. Yes, I did, I played softball and basketball and my love was softball, but fortunately I was able to have a basketball scholarship at the University of Mobile. And as far as any challenges on the field with my gender I just have to express that there certainly have not been any challenges. Everybody has been very professional and they look at me just like another official.

Do you have a goal to be a referee someday? I know some officials come into the league as a side judge or line judge or back judge and perhaps hope to be that someday? And then a question for Dean is, without being too general or too specific – what separates a college line judge from an NFL line judge?

Thomas: Thank you very much. A goal of mine to be an official – when I was playing sports, no it never entered my mind, but once I got into the high school association and then onto college of course the competitive side of me – I didn’t want to stop there and fortunately I’ve gotten a call from Dean.

Blandino: Trying not to be too general or too specific, but I think a line judge really is responsible for everything on the line of scrimmage so that reaction time has to be there and the ability to process things quickly. And because the pro game is that much faster than the college game we really – the officials that we bring in, we expect them to be able to transition and be able to adjust to that speed as quickly as possible. So we really use the preseason just like the players and coaches do to prepare for that.  We’ve already given Sarah and these other officials the opportunity to work preseason games and so we’ve seen what they’re – obviously a small sample size – what they’re able to do.  And so the preseason this year is going to be very critical to their ability to adjust to the NFL speed and the pace that things happen.

My question is a two-part one – first you were part of a crew that did Chip Kelly’s first preseason game in 2013, do you have any recollection or special memories from that game? And also your extensive experience at the college level, with the proliferation of the spread offenses there, how do you think that’s helping you with your transition to the NFL?

Thomas:  Thank you. Yes, I definitely remember that game and I was actually able to shadow that crew and just being able to see how they handle themselves on the sideline and being with that line judge for that game was just a great experience. And as far as the second question, the spread offenses, college – in Conference USA they run a lot of high-tempo offenses and I know in the National Football League that’s the case as well and like Dean has said, just the preparation that we have and the adjustments that we’ll do and the reaction time, that’s just crucial in the development of where I’m coming from, collegiate to the pro level.

When you first started out did you set out to be an NFL official? If not, when did it become a goal of yours?

Thomas: Thank you so much. No, I did not set out to become an NFL official. But, I guess the further I went along in the progression and getting into Conference USA, part of me thought that it may become a reality. The fact is, and this is so cliché, but officials will tell you that you work every game and you hope to be asked back to work the next one, or keep your schedule, if you will. So my goal has always been to be the best line judge I can be anytime I’m given the opportunity to work and that if things progressed then they of course would and I always said I would not even turn down the phone call if it came and I definitely did not on April 2. So, my goal literally is to be the best official that I can be.  And I just feel honored and blessed to be a part of the National Football League now.

I’d like to ask you to share the road that you took to go ahead and get here, particularly the human aspects, the challenge of doing something that was unique and the roads, the experiences, the bumps in the road that you experienced. And for Dean, would you be kind enough to address the fact that there are three Conference USA officials in this list? The conference is very well-represented and how that speaks to the quality of officiating in the league since you do scout, obviously, all of the officiating around the country.

Thomas: Thank you so much, yes. And I just have to say I’m excited too that two of my fellow crewmates from Conference USA – Clay Martin and Hugo Cruz – are a part of the new hires. I’m as excited for them as I am anybody. As far as the road that I have or the human aspect of it or the journey I’ve gone through, I have to tell you that I could not do it without the support of my husband or my family and my friends. I just couldn’t and yes, I’m human and I have a job and I’m a wife and a mother and I try to balance it all and I think that’s just it. You learn to prioritize and delegate and say no when you can and then just focus on the things you can control and just stay positive in that regard. Thank you.

Blandino: Bill, yes, we scout all over the country and I think it is a testament to the quality of the officiating and the quality of the training in Conference USA that three officials from that conference are entering the league all from the same crew. And we recognize that and we look at all the conferences and not just the big conferences but we search smaller college conferences and just looking for officials that maybe haven’t had the opportunity to get to a bigger conference. So it definitely speaks to the quality of officials in Conference USA, but we are always looking all over the country for a qualified and diverse pool of officials.

Sarah you mentioned how that competitiveness kicked in once you got into officiating. How do you think that your background as an athlete both helped you be successful at officiating but also contributed to you liking it so much?

Thomas: Rachel, thank you. I think really and truly that being a former player, I just would’ve hated to have thought that an official would’ve thought that my game would’ve been any less than maybe a larger division or something like that. So I think I’ve taken that with me with my mindset of officiating that every game is important to those players and to the coaches and to the fans. So I just really think that my background has helped me to appreciate every snap and every game that I’ve been blessed to call.

I wanted to follow up on something was asked in one of the first questions that had to do with some of the other officials that helped in your journey… specifically wanted to ask if you had any personal connection with Mr. [Jack] Vaughn over in Starkville who was a Super Bowl official. Did he help you during your journey at all?

Thomas: He was so instrumental, and Jacob, I’m glad you asked about Jack. He passed away not too long ago and I was very fortunate to be a part of his life and just his words of wisdom, his guidance from life and officiating and I wished he was here to experience all this with me. Yes, I thought the world of Jack Vaughn and just wished he could be here. Thank you for asking.

My question is, I’ve read that you have said you set out to be a great official and being a female has nothing to do with it and many people want to focus on your gender. But whether it be at the college level or whether it was United Football, you have been a trailblazer. Do you enjoy the role now that you’ve been forced into it as a trailblazer and sometimes they always say pioneers take arrows. Can you maybe describe some of those arrows that you’ve had to take along the way as you’ve just pursued your passion?

Thomas: You know I’ve always said I’m a female and I can’t change that and just because I love the game of football and officiating and I do honor the fact that a lot of people consider me a trailblazer but as far as being forced into the trailblazer role or being forced into this—I would say hobby before—but profession, I don’t feel that way and I’ve just been doing it truly because I love it and 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 being an official. And that’s what I’ve always set out to do.

This is a two-part question. I was wondering whether or not you’ve ever gotten a chance to meet or talk to the two women who sort of broke the gender barrier in the NBA, Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner several years ago. And I was also wondering whether you’ve ever had the opportunity to speak to or interact with or even work with Shannon Eastin, the official who worked the replacement games a couple years ago and whether any of them had any sort of input into what you’re doing sort of coming up in the ranks and just dealing with being with one of the very few on the field.

Thomas: No, I have not had the opportunity to meet either Dee or Violet and I have not spoken with them. I of course can’t put words in their mouth but just watching them over the years I believe that they probably set out just like I have or like any other female official and wanting to do the best jobs they can and wanting to be an official and wanting to be recognized for their merit and their professionalism and the way that they handled the job as an official. I have met Shannon Eastin one time. I don’t really know Shannon and with any female that is wanting to get involved in officiating, I just say be sure that you’re doing it for all the right reasons as any official, because it’s a tough job and you just want to be sure that you’re doing it for the right reason.

Obviously this is the latest step in what’s been a pretty significant journey but it kind of got started in Mississippi with high school football so if you could talk a little bit about Mississippi high school football as kind of a training ground for you. I guess you can also touch on, this is not necessarily the first time that you have broken down any barrier or anything like that I recall a story about a church basketball league you played in.

Thomas: I’m glad you asked about the roots and where I came from. Mississippi is just a phenomenal state for high school football, period. As far as the training ground that I was exposed to in Pascagoula… George Nash and all the guys that influenced me and when I first walked into that first meeting I’m telling you it was life changing for me and the fact that I actually saw that officials took pride and time and what they were doing to make the game better and that is really what drew me in especially being a former athlete and I couldn’t have asked for better training for not only football, but for just what to expect in life as a football official and the other part to your question, you know there are things in our lives you know a door closes there are several that open and I just think I try to consider some of those times as that was a moment that one door shut and another door was opened.

As we all know, NFL officials are only part-time and you guys have real jobs during the week, so I was just curious what do you do for a living? Do you have a family and what’s the additional travel now, how’s that going to affect your life?

Thomas: Thank you. I’m a pharmaceutical sales rep for Novo Nordisk, a diabetes care specialist. So I love what I do. I am married 15 years as of yesterday, and we have three beautiful kids. Bridley is 14, Brady is 11 and Bailey is 2. Two boys and the baby is a girl. And as far as the travel I really don’t know what to expect. My life these last few years has been a lot of travel but my family is accustom to it. I have a tremendous support group at home, outside of my immediate family with friends and extended family. They’ve all helped me on this journey and they will continue to help.

Dean, with nine new officials coming in, does that mean nine are going out or are you going to have floaters or another crew?

Blandino: Good question. We are probably going to have a couple of floaters, as you say. We are not going to have an additional crew, but we are looking at some of the challenges that we’ve had with injuries and things in the past. We’re probably going to have a couple of officials that won’t be assigned full-time to a crew and will be able to fill in and rotate in as we move along. Sarah will be on a crew. We haven’t finalized the crews but Sarah will be on a crew.

How many officials will be leaving the league this year for 2014? 

Blandino: Anywhere from seven to eight. We are still working through that, but seven to eight officials.

I wanted to address some questions. You know Sen’Derrick Marks said the league is doing this for publicity. You know there’s been all this twitter talk that the timing is interesting, you hire a female official the year after Ray Rice. I’d like you to address that and the other thing, is nine normal or do you feel you have to bring in new blood and upgrade the officials? 

Blandino: I’ll address the first question first.  If you look at Sarah’s background and her journey to get here, this is not something that has happened overnight. She has been officiating for 20 years. She’s been on our radar screen for eight to nine years. She’s been a part of our development program for two, working preseason games. So this is not something that just happened. And obviously the timing of it, we feel that she is ready to come in to the league. And when we feel an official is ready to come in to the league and we have openings, that’s when we bring them in regardless of everything else that’s happening. So it is a testament to her and what she has accomplished. She’s earned the right. And she is going to be evaluated just like all of our other officials, based on her performance next year. So we will have that opportunity to look and see how she did. So I would say I would hold off on that judgement until we can see how she does. I know I’m putting pressure on her but I’m sure she can handle it.

The second question about the turnover. That is more turnover than what we have had. Last year we have 13 new officials, this year nine. So that is more turnover than we’ve had in recent years. I think it is a combination of things. Obviously there have been some officials that have decided to retire, some that we’ve moved on from because of various issues. We take it very seriously and we want the best officials. We are going to do a comprehensive review of the entire staff every year and if an official isn’t performing up to the standard they won’t be a part of the NFL and we have many qualified candidates that are ready to step in to that place. So the pressure is immense and we understand that responsibility. Nine is more than we’ve had in the past but we feel like we have improved the staff this year.

I have read where you put your hair up under your cap during games so gender does not become an issue in your mind. I was wondering if you could address that and will that still be the case at the NFL level?

Thomas: Yes.  When I joined Conference USA, Gerald Austin told me that I needed to tuck my hair to blend in because as officials we want to go as unnoticed as much as possible and he thought that if I walked out with a ponytail that there will be some stereotypes right off. That’s why he asked me to put my hair up and he also asked me not to wear any makeup but I told him he was crossing the line there. So hopefully I could still wear a little bit of makeup. And tucking my hair, I’ve just become accustom to it. And if Dean doesn’t have any objections, I’m fine with tucking it. But I think my hair is the least of my concerns. Thank you.

I was curious about what you learned from your experience of working at the top level in the development program over the last two years when you were at minicamp and preseason games? What specific things you took from that in terms of differences from the college game to the pro game? And Dean, I had a quick follow up to find out how many other women are in the development program and especially at the upper level right now?

Thomas: Hey Lindsey, thanks so much. You know the advance development program has been very instrumental and I’m very grateful that it’s been put in place. Like you mentioned, the minicamps, the training camps, the preseason when you make the transition from college to the pros, speed and reaction time has a lot to do with it. I know that in mini camps, and training camps, and preseason, sometimes they tell you they don’t go as fast as the regular season but the preparation in getting ready for that speed and the reaction time and the line of scrimmage work, that was very, very beneficial to me. And hopefully I can apply it this upcoming season.

Blandino: We have several women officiating within our pipeline. There are about 15 officials at different levels of our development program. One, Maia Chaka, who is the advanced development group, which is the group that Sarah just left as well. Then we have one other official who is officiating out west that we’ve interviewed to potentially join that group. So there are a lot more women officiating now and we are really dedicated to developing them and giving them the opportunities to further their careers. Also at the grassroots level, educating people and explaining what officiating is about and going to current athletes or former athletes and explaining to them that officiating is a career path in football. That’s something that we are dedicated to and we have quite a few women in officiating and we look forward to that continuing.

I actually have two somewhat related questions. The first being what reaction are you expecting come the regular season from coaches, players and certainly fans and then I want to know what you think – you mentioned Gerald Austin – what you think of the whole officiating-analysis industry? Mike Pereira, Mike Carey, how much more difficult does that make your job?

Thomas: The reaction that I’m expecting is that I’m just going to try and be another one of the officials. I know that I may stand out because I’m the first, or whatever it may be. As far as the players and the coaches, I’ve been around for a good little while and I think they know who I am. They just want to make sure that I can do the job as an official. As far as Gerald Austin and the analysts, everybody is entitled to their opinions and the networks have them there to be a rules expert. They interpret things that maybe at times help regular fan bases understand what’s happening on the field.

You mentioned there were some officials we moved on from and if an official isn’t performing up to the standards, he won’t be in the NFL. Can you tell us who those officials were and what the issues were that made you move on from them and if you can’t tell us that, can you tell us generally, what are the types of issues that you would be looking at that might come up to make you decide that it might be time to move on from a particular official?  

Blandino: I won’t get into specific names. We are going to put out the roster at the end of the month and so you can look at the roster and probably figure it out. We look for – any official in any competitive arena could have a poor season. So one season may not cause us to terminate an official, but if it becomes a trend, multiple seasons, we have a tier-based ranking system where we rank our officials in one of three tiers and the third tier being the lowest performers. Once they enter tier three then we give them an enhanced training regimen and we focus on them and their development. If we still don’t see improvement the following season, that’s when we seriously consider moving on. Things like decision making. They are ranked on calls that they make and calls they shouldn’t make. Physical fitness is obviously important. Being able to physically cover the position. If they can’t do that, then that’s something that will prevent them from officiating in the National Football League.

I’ve been told that you really don’t like thumping your chest and it’s been made very evident within this phone call, but I really want to know, I mean this is a major deal, so just talk to me. Tell me what your feelings are, you know, to be the first full-time female official. 

Thomas: I’m telling you that I’m ecstatic. I am. But wanting to stick my chest out, or whatever it may be, that I’m the first female – it’s the mindset of an official that you don’t want to be seen or noticed and I don’t know if it’s just that my mind has been trained that way for 20 years. I don’t know. Do I downplay the honor that it is to be first? Absolutely not. I know that it will hopefully open doors for anyone. Little girls or guys who think that maybe they can’t do something. That’s an aspect that I don’t downplay at all. I think if you do something because you love it, then opportunities will present themselves. I hate to downplay it somewhat. Am I ecstatic? Yes. But, still I’m an official and that’s the mindset that I have.

I was wondering, just to follow up on the turnover that you had amongst the officials, when you look back at last season in terms of the 13 new people you had, did you see results there? Did you think officiating was better as a result the turnover that you guys accomplished last year?

Blandino: We saw that officiating was better, not just because of the turnover. It’s an overall difference in terms of what we are doing from a training perspective. I mentioned the physical fitness perspective and what we are requiring of our game officials because the scrutiny is so high at this point. We really are asking more of them. Part of it was the turnover and the fact that we brought in 13 new officials and they performed well. Because that can go the other way. It’s really finding, just like a team, finding the right balance of youth and experience and having it all mesh together. Obviously it’s not perfect, we had challenges and bumps in the road. But we felt like getting the right people was key. That’s why we go through such an exhaustive process to bring these officials in. It’s not just what they do on the field but how they conduct themselves off the field. We do feel like the officiating was better, but obviously there are always going to be calls that are disputed. But I think it’s an overall picture that led to that.

And just a follow up, you said there would be seven or eight leaving this year. Were there 13 that left last year? Was it one-for-one was it less for more?

Blandino: Last year it was one-for-one because we had 17 crews of seven, so it was 119 officials. This year we do anticipate having a couple of swing officials that can rotate in and out.


The National Football League Referees Association (NFLRA) has now issued its own statement on the new hires.

NFLRA statement on Sarah Thomas


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