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The NFL just hired its first female official! (Cue stereotypical media reaction)

April 21st, 2015 by ,    photos by

One reporter's question at the press conference: How is she going to wear her hair?


Sarah Thomas, the first full-time female official in NFL history


The National Football League isn't exactly a grassy platform for gender equality. But while last year's dramatic story of 'Ray-and-Janay' - Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice and then-fiancee Janay Palmar - was unfolding on airwaves across the world, one female official was gearing up to make her own sort of historic mark on the field.

The longest yard

Last Wednesday, 41-year-old Sarah Thomas became the first full-time female official in NFL history - making the title just one more achievement to add to her trophy case. In 2009, she became the first female official in college football history. In 2011, she became the first female official in a "Big Ten" stadium - one of the largest stadiums, in terms of crowd capacity, in the nation.

But her gender wasn't at the forefront of the NFL's decision, the league explained at a press conference. According to the Telegraph, it turns out she was actually chosen for the same reason all the rest were - for being one of the best graduates from the league's Officiating Development programme. We know - shocker, right? 

Is there such thing as a stupid question? Well...

Okay, perhaps her success is not all that shocking for most. And yet, for at least some Twitter users, the news came as a bit of a jolt. From one Twitter handle: "Flag! What's wrong? Nothing... No what's wrong? Nothing! I'm fine!" And from another: "At least hire one with a rack." 

One reporter, surely on his or her way to a Pulitzer Prize, asked Thomas how she would wear her hair, to which she responded: “I think my hair’s the least of my concerns." She did add, however, that she expects she'll likely wear it tucked into her cap so as to fit in with the other officials (no word yet on how she plans to wear her brows, though). 

Luckily for Thomas - and although she may have a near-full roster of "firsts" - she isn't the first female in sports refereeing to attract attention for donning stripes in a sports bra. Earlier this year, the NBA fined Los Angeles Clippers player Chris Paul a full $25,000 after referee Lauren Holtkamp (one of the only two active female officials in NBA) issued a technical foul against Paul that he insisted cost his team the game win because NBA officiating "might not be for her." 

Shattering glass backboards

He later clarified his issue was with the call - not her gender. But back in 1997, when trailblazer Violet Palmer broke barriers as the first female official for the NBA, players weren't ashamed to admit their issue was indeed with her gender. Many voiced their concerns over her physical stamina (could she really keep up with the boys?), her ability to handle cursing and crass language (she's a lady, after all), and whether or not they would be able to pat her on the butt after a great game (okay - keep your hands to yourself there, fellas).

As Palmer explained in a 2005 article for USA Today, "At first it was one of those arm's-distance kind of things. [They seemed to be thinking] 'She has this strength, she reminds me of my mother, but I'm not sure how to deal with her.' As time went on, it became, 'Wow, she's just cool. She's just as cool as the guys.'"

But at least one pro athlete - former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote - supported women officiating pro sports for a different reason, saying in 2012: “Women are more honest and fair than men - and they know how to catch a man cheating.” 

Well - he gave it his best shot.

Running it to the end field

Though female referees are still a rare sight in professional sports (the NHL has yet to hire its first female official), gender parity in the ref arena may not be all that far off in the future.

Perhaps by then, how they wear their hair will no longer be the biggest concern of the game.


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