STORY BY TIM WEBBER
The next step in the fight for gender equality has come from an unlikely source: the National Football League.
It may be hard to believe that the organization that many consider the epitome of masculinity, the organization that cashes in billions each year from people wanting to see grown men risk traumatic brain injuries, is a leader in the fight for women’s rights.
But the NFL affirmed that position earlier this month when it announced the hiring of its first full-time female official.
Sarah Thomas has been an on-field official for years in the NCAA, and the NFL has decided that she is ready to take the next step.
The NFL has a rigorous process for determining its officials.
Any referee, regardless of gender, has to be at the top of their game to even be considered for a job in the big leagues.
So the question surrounding Thomas’ hire isn’t whether she is ready for the NFL. It’s whether the NFL is ready for her.
Thomas won’t be the first female referee in the four major North American sports.
The NBA has had female refs in its rotation since 1997.
In fact, Thomas isn’t the first female official to work an NFL game. Shannon Eastin was a replacement referee used by the NFL during the referee’s lockout in 2012.
What makes Thomas special is that she is the first female official to make it through the NFL’s development program and the league is ready to stand by her as a permanent official.
The road from here is not guaranteed to be easier for Thomas, however.
No league garners more attention than the NFL.
Its referees are regularly criticized despite making the correct call almost 100 percent of the time.
Even the NBA, which has had female refs for almost 20 years now, still has issues with female refs being unfairly criticized due to their gender.
Chris Paul, a prominent player for the Los Angeles Clippers, criticized a female referee and suggested that the rigorous position “might not be for her.”
He has further clarified his comments as being about a particular call that he was upset about and claims it had nothing to do with her gender. But the damage was done.
No doubt many Clipper fans — and NBA fans — were groundlessly questioning the place of female referees in the game of basketball.
That’s the stark reality of Thomas’ position. If she makes a costly mistake, a white-hot spotlight will shine on her.
And there will be mistakes. No referee is perfect. In Thomas’ case, even a minor mistake could give her undue attention.
There will probably be rape and death threats from that segment of the population that is more monster than human. You can generally find them in YouTube comment sections.
But Thomas will have the support of the NFL and the vast majority of its fans.
Most of those fans don’t have a vocal online presence – that’s where the monsters live – but they’ll still stand up for Thomas.
In a way, it’s best if we never hear about Sarah Thomas again.
That means that she’s doing her job well, and the public has accepted Thomas, not as “that female official” but instead as just another zebra officiating the game of football.