At a Baptist gymnasium in Pascagoula, Mississippi, a men’s church basketball league are holding an emergency meeting to determine the fate of one participant.
The player in question, a 23-year-old centre, is watching on with a growing sense of inevitability and anger. A unanimous first vote among peers is cast for permanent expulsion.
The player puts in a protest, leading to another vote which ends up split down the middle. So, as per the league rules regarding tiebreakers, the deciding vote goes to the preacher.
The preacher decides to do a bit more digging. What is the actual issue here? One opponent offers his tale: “Well, because when she posts us up, or I post her up, it just feels funny.” With that, the preacher upholds the result of the original vote.
Having kept her cool throughout the meeting, with no teammates present to support her case, there was nothing left to lose. So, with her time in the league coming to an end on someone else’s terms, she let loose.
“I’ve been in this league for three years, and y’all just now realising I’m a woman?!” As gazes shift to the floor, she turns to that one dissenting voice: “As fast-paced of a game as basketball is, if you get some type of sexual sensation out of this, you don’t need to be in this league!” With that, she got up and stormed out in tears.
That fury remains, though a sense of humour has dulled the spikier edges of the incident. “You can imagine - I say ‘sexual sensation’ in a Baptist gymnasium, I’m toast,” laughs Sarah Thomas, now 47, in conversation withThe Independent over Zoom. “Out the door. But I was pissed.”
The relevance of that meeting 25 years ago is two-fold. It revisited an episode earlier in Thomas’s life from sixth grade when she was banned from the A-team for being a girl. She responded by dominating the B-team. It also set the wheels in motion for last month, when she became the first woman to referee in a Super Bowl.
Officiating was never an early passion. In fact, a decorated high school and university career as a softball and basketball player, and it was on the court developed a hatred towards referees. Her work as a dominant, defensively-robust centre, with a good leap and jump shot, brought her the odd undeserved foul call but plenty of recognition. She received a basketball scholarship to the University of Mobile, racked up 779 points, 411 rebounds, 108 assists and 192 steals and earned academic all-American honours. Thomas could play. Probably too well for the fragility of the men she came up against in Pascagoula in the absence of a women’s league.
In the week following her expulsion, a conversation with her brother led to a discussion over that evening’s plans. He mentioned he was attending an American football officials meeting. Desperate for a sporting outlet of any sort, she mulled it over before asking: “Can women do that?”
She attended and was hooked. Again, not so much by the officiating aspect, but by those in attendance. “The men at that association, they took me in and treated me like an official, not with delicate gloves.
“One of the trainers at that first session turned to the other guys and laid it out: ‘Look, she’s younger than we are, she’s definitely in better shape than we are. Her eyesight’s got to be better than ours. And she’s smart. Why shouldn’t she work?’”
As with any route to the top, the journey starts at the bottom. Thomas started reffing on the high-school circuit, a stint that lasted longer than it should have done. The white hat - lead referee - on her regular high-school crew wanted her to join his junior college team, but came back telling her not to apply after the assigning secretary declared he would never hire a woman.
“By then, I’d done 10 seasons of high school. So I decided to give it up. My oldest son was starting to play organised sport. I had a three-year-old as well.” A pharmaceutical career was also taking off. Before hanging up her whistle, she worked a 2006 State Championship.
It was here that Joe Haine, an NFL scout, was lurking. “I had no idea these people existed,” says Thomas. “Scouting officials?” Haine touched base with Thomas after the match, commending her on her field presence during one particular tight call which required plenty of back-and-forth from the sidelines to the middle. “No matter how you are doing,” says Thomas, “right or wrong, someone is always watching how you are going about doing it.”
Believing she had what it took to get to the next level, Haine put in a call to Gerald Austin, an NFL official for more than 25 years who was now the coordination of football officials for Conference USA. The legend goes that when Haine spoke of a worthy new recruit, Austin asked: “What’s his name?” “Well, his name is Sarah.”
Haine had never recommended an official that didn’t work. So regardless that “he” was a “she”, Austin took Thomas on.
The pair grew close as mentor and mentee as Thomas spent around eight seasons on the Conference USA beat, officiating Division One college, semi-pro and arena matches. In 2011, she was interviewed by the NFL.
With the media catching wind of the development, so came the buzz. The league was due to hire its first female official and the requests for interviews and writing of profiles went through the roof. It was unsettling: “At the time, I was thinking you are not guaranteed that [a spot on the NFL roster] at any given moment. Something can happen.”
Something did at the start of 2012, though Thomas needed five pregnancy tests to believe it. Aged 39, she was pregnant with her third child. Working the arena football season at the time, she called Austin to inform him of the shock news.
“Right,” thought Austin, who knew an NFL call was in the offing for the following season. “We need to let these supervisors for the arena know that the reason you are sitting out is because you have a high ankle sprain.”
“Gerald: it’s going to swell up around my belly, I cannot fake that I’m not pregnant!” So, she told the necessary organisations. The NFL were happy to wait, taking a longer-term view and signing her onto the developmental programme. Conference USA moved her to the replay booth for the rest of her pregnancy. In December 2012, her daughter, Bailey, was born.
That led to another familiar gripe: that she wouldn’t be able to regain the fitness required to keep up with the speed and agility required at the top level. That this was the end for her. She did, of course.
“I’m grateful for genetics: my body sprung back. Of course, I had to work out and eat right. But, I mean, only a man would say that, you know?”
The media storm whipped up again, despite Thomas not working a snap until late 2013. And as the moment drew closer, she noticed the dissent above her head became more audible, veiled thinly by arguments the mid-level of Conference USA was no marker of aptitude. At the start of 2014, they had their proof. During a senior bowl in January, she made an error. A big one.
“I didn’t penalise a player from the defensive line. It was bad. He then went on to sack the quarterback. So it looks really bad on me that I’m not ready.”
Her fears were confirmed later at an officials clinic. Austin called her to his hotel room to let her know the call she was waiting for was not going to come. He tried to sugar-coat it, keeping his feedback as short and as vague as possible, not wishing to fuel her self-doubt. Thomas demanded detail, stating she would not leave his room without it, even going as far as commandeering his coach and ordering up a large glass of red wine to wash down the information. Sure enough, it was because of the sacked quarterback play.
A few months later, as she was preparing for a scrimmage at a mini-camp, a supervisor Thomas thought was against her inclusion noticed an opportunity to rile her.
“You see that number 55,” said the supervisor, pointing to a player warming up in the distance. “He will forever be your guy, Sarah.” Thomas looked over and saw the defensive tackle that went unpenalised. She went over.
“Do you remember that play that happened in the Bowl and I didn’t flag you? You sacked the quarter-back?”
“Oh yeah,” he replied.
“Well, it kept me from getting in the NFL.”
“Well it helped me get in the NFL, so I appreciate you not calling it!”
With that, she was off again. And on 8 April, 2015, at 10:57 am Central Standard Time, the NFL’s Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino called to welcome her to the NFL. With that, the league had their first female official. They also changed the name of the position “head linesman” to “down judge” as a more appropriate gender-neutral term.
As ever, it set off a chain of “firsts”: her debut with Houston Texans against the Kansas City Chiefs in September 2015, the AFC divisional playoff between New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers culminating with the Super Bowl. However, not every “first” comes with acclaim.
Thomas would become the “first” to have a call challenged, the “first” to break up an on-field ruckus, the “first” to deal with a disgruntled sideline. Even the “first” of ruling correctly on marginal calls carried a darker side. One in particular stands out.
“I never felt as if I was carrying a torch or being a pioneer,” she says. “Not that I felt the pressure of it: there’s enough pressure in this line of work that black, white, brown, male, female - if you put that added pressure on you it will drown you. But there was one game when the magnitude of it hit me. My first Monday Night game in 2015.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the ball at the San Diego Chargers’ one-yard line with five seconds left. A snap to Le’Veon Bell saw the running back break through bodies to cross the goal line and reach across for a touchdown as time expired before his knee touched the ground. Thomas, as line judge, raised her hands to signal a touchdown. Replay reviews confirmed her on-field call and the Steelers won 24-20.
“It was all over social media and the papers the next day. Everywhere. Front page – ‘The Girl Gets It Right!’ basically. And I realised right then: if I had missed that play, it probably could have set back other women getting in.”
The glory of her appearance in Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs came with the added bonus of family. On lockdown upon arrival into Tampa Bay, she first saw them as she was approaching her position on the goal line for the start of the match as they were taking their seats.
“They were walking in at the exact time I was getting to that point in the End Zone. I whistled really loud, a whistle my whole family and probably everyone in my neighbourhood knows. I saw my daughter, Bailey, look over at me. I pounded my hands and signalled a down and mouthed to them, “it’s go-time!”
If there’s a lesson in Thomas’s stories and her words, there’s also one in her enthusiasm. A real sense that this isn’t simply breaking new ground, but coming into a space and finding so much joy and satisfaction that others are missing out on - like she’s just walked into a party and wants to immediately jump on her phone to invite other women. And they are turning up.
There were eight women coaches across the NFL last season, of which six were involved in the post-season. Two – Jennifer King of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lori Locust of the Washington Football Team – came up against each other in the Wildcard round. Some of the league’s most prominent media voices are female and, last week, more history was made when Maia Chaka became the league’s first Black female official.
Thomas does not see herself as a trailblazer, or any such moniker. She’s not a fan of “glass-ceiling” either: “I like to say I shattered the grass ceiling”. But she does have advice for women on the outside looking into a world of opportunity, whose worry of acceptance and abuse might see them give up on their passions, whether basketball, American football or any such ambition in a male-dominated society.
“I don’t ever want people to use that as an excuse,” she says. “Because it only allows the person that is discriminating against you more power.
“I would tell them to throw their shoulders back, stick their chest out, hold your head high and walk through that door. I just pray and hope that there will be a lot of ceilings that will be shattered by minorities and women.
“Don’t go through life trying to prove people wrong. Because I learned that list of people will never end, it doesn’t matter what level you get to in your professional life. Just prove to yourself you belong. Walk through that door. You belong.”
As the interview winds down, Bailey makes an appearance to drag her mother away. Thomas puts her on her lap: “What does momma tell you you’ll never have to ask?”
Bailey turns and looks down the camera: “Can girls do that?”
To find out more about playing American football, head to clubs.britishamericanfootball.org.