by Jordan Kisner
Sarah Thomas’ career is headed right for the top. At thirty-five, she is one of the most successful referees for big-time college football, and is on the short list of referees waiting to be tapped for the N.F.L. Fellow referees and N.F.L officials commend her as an “excellent official” who can be counted on to make “one tough call after another.”
Thomas did not intend to make football refereeing her full time job. A former athlete herself, she began working for youth leagues and eventually moved through the ranks to middle and high games, all the while developing a successful career in pharmaceutical sales. She had two sons with her husband, Brian, and decided in 2006 that she was going to stop refereeing; but, before she quit, she got a call from Gerald Austin, the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA, who eventually hired her to work in college football. Her career has been steadily on the rise ever since.
Thomas’ transformation from pharmaceutical salesperson to highly successful football official is certainly a worthy human interest story on its own, but the profile of her that the New York Times ran yesterday seemed interested only one fact about Thomas: her sex.
Sarah Thomas happens to be the only female referee for big-time college football, and, if she gets picked to officiate in the N.F.L, she will be the only female referee there as well. According to Thomas and her coworkers, the fact that she is the only woman on the field isn’t a problem, and Joe Drape of the New York Times is just tickled to death.
Indeed, Drape’s enthusiasm for Thomas’ singularity in her field seems tinged with the kind of proud disbelief displayed by parents watching a precocious and totally unself-conscious child. He makes sure to include an anecdote about how out-of-place Thomas looked when she continued refereeing through her pregnancy, and assures his readers that this career path is all right with her husband. He begins and ends the article with descriptions of instances in which she has startled players, and repeats the phrase “Thomas and her fellow officials say her gender has never been an issue” enough times that one wonders if he is having trouble believing this for himself.
I wonder why, if Thomas and her coworkers regard her sex as a nonissue, Drape seems so obsessed with it. I appreciate the impulse to honor a woman who is succeeding in a male-dominated field, but making her sex the focal point in an article about her career undermines Thomas’ victory in making her gender irrelevant to her job. I also appreciate the impulse to celebrate the fact that she faced neither discrimination nor sexism on her journey, but I for one will be more excited to celebrate the day when stories like Sarah Thomas’ don’t meet with a “Gee! Can you believe it?” attitude from the press.