Sarah Thomas First Female Official in an NFL Playoff Game
Here at Project-Nerd, we’ve always said that you can nerd-out about anything. On the website, I usually keep it to more traditionally nerdy topics, but if you listen to the Nerdcast you’ve heard us talk about sports and any other number of things, and if you catch me at a convention I’ll probably have a sports team hat on or a hoodie with me and I’d love to nerd-out with you about anything. But I want to take a little time to talk about something very cool have happened this past weekend. Sunday, January 13, 2019, brought something to the National Football League that we’ve never seen before. Sarah Thomas became the first female on-field official for a playoff game in the NFL during the Chargers vs. Patriots game.
How does that lead me to nerd-out, you ask? Well, two reasons really. First, and least important in this case, is that I’m a Kansas City Chiefs fan. And watching that game Sunday, I was reminded of how horrible it is to play the Patriots during the playoffs. Second, and most importantly, I think it’s absolutely fantastic to see women breaking into male-dominated professions. Why is this so important? Let’s talk a little history to get some perspective.
The NFL as we know it today comes from the late 1960’s merger of the NFL and AFL, two competing football leagues. Let’s call it 53 year’s since this year’s Super Bowl is LIII. Things have changed quite a bit in the last 53 years. If you went back in time to 1966 and told an ardent football fan that in their lifetime, or that of their children, that women would be officiating NFL games and coaching NFL teams they would probably laugh. Not that everyone in the ’60s was a raging sexist but the idea of women being involved in male-dominated professions was still very new. I checked the numbers from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and in 1966 women made up only 35.6% of the workforce, despite being over half of the employable population (aged 16 or over). So, that’s the world the NFL was starting in, not a lot of women working and other than office staff none in the NFL.
Now let’s look at the NFL more specifically, in terms of female participation: players, coaches, officials, and owners. For players, there have been no female NFL players. Several women have played in other professional men’s leagues here in the US but none in the NFL. For coaches, Jennifer Welter was the first woman to coach in the NFL as an interim coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. A year later Kathryn Smith became the first full-time coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2016. For officials, Shannon Eastin was the first woman to officiate an NFL game in 2012 when she was hired as a replacement official during the full-time official lockout to start that season. Sarah Thomas became the first full-time female official in 2015. For owners, I can’t find a definitive list of female owners but it looks like one of the earliest would’ve been Virginia Halas McCaskey of the Chicago Bears. She took over for her father in 1983 and has been guiding them to some very good years since then. The NFL currently has 9 female owners, four solo owners and five joint owners.
Overall, that’s not too bad for ownership but the other categories are pretty sad to look at. There’s no reason for it to take nearly 50 years for a woman to be a coach or official. It’s possible that the women hired first as a coach or official were the first to apply, but I highly doubt it. So why did it take so long for the NFL to include women and why is it important that they are now? To answer the first question as simply as possible, I have no idea. Seriously. So let’s come back to that later and look at the second question.
It’s so important that the NFL is now including women in roles that until very recently were held by only men so that young football fans know what’s possible. “What do you mean by that Adam?” you ask. Well, let’s say you were a young woman in growing up in the 1970s. You wake up every Sunday and get your chores done so that you can watch the football games on TV later. You’re a passionate fan and like most of us are probably yelling at the TV about how you could do a better job “than these blind zebras.” But you never see a female official so you never think of it as a real possibility for your future. A few years later your team is in a downward trend and you watch receiver after receiver line up incorrectly, drop easy passes, and fail to even try to block on a running play, again you find yourself saying “I could teach those guys how to do better than that!” But every coach you see on the college games on Saturdays and the pro games on Sundays is a guy, so is it really possible?
Now imagine you’re a young woman who loves football growing up today. You still get up early on Sunday so you can have your chores done in time to watch the games (and how awesome is it now that you can watch nearly every game!). But instead of seeing nothing but men on the coaching staffs and in the officiating crews now you have women in there too. It’s easier for you to imagine how that could be a career for you. That’s why these “first ofs” are so important. That’s why it is important for us to celebrate it when it happens. I am from Florida and I watch a lot of ACC football on Saturdays during the fall and I can tell you we need as many officials as possible. The competition will make them have to be better and if we can double the pool of officials it will do nothing but help.
So, it’s important because it opens the door for women to continue to be part of the game we all love and who could be upset with that? That leads us back to the first question, what took the NFL so long to include women? Some of it is because there were no women to emulate, and unfortunately some of it is because people probably thought big tough football players wouldn’t listen to a woman. There will always have to be a first and it’s a shame that it took nearly 50 years for the first female coaches and officials. But now that we have them we have to keep working to ensure that women have an equal opportunity to fill those roles. It will be hard for them because they’ll need to get experience and many of the places they could start coaching or start officiating they’ll be the first woman to have done it there. But hopefully, now that they can see an example every Sunday on TV they’ll keep striving for their goals.
See, I told you that here at Project-Nerd we can nerd-out about anything. As a football fan, I’m proud of Sarah Thomas, both because she was the first full-time official and because she worked hard and in only a few years earned the privilege of officiating a playoff game. I hope her example can show more young woman that if they want to be involved in professional football that they can.