A woman? In football?!?

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.

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11 Responses

  1. Nentuaby
    Nentuaby September 19, 2009 at 5:35 pm |

    Thomas and her fellow officials say her gender has never been an issue

    Riiight. Her gender has never made any difference. So she’s the only woman in the entire profession because… She’s the only one who’s ever been attracted to it? Men are massively disproportionately more qualified to determine whether athletes are following the rules?

  2. Femmostroppo Reader – September 20, 2009 — Hoyden About Town

    [...] A woman? In football?!? [...]

  3. Azalea
    Azalea September 20, 2009 at 9:16 am |

    Sarah Thomas had NO interest in pursueing this as a full time career until she got a lucrative offer that lured her away from Pharmacuetical Sales. I don’t think there was some big conspiracy to pick a woman-any woman- and make her a referee just to say gender doesn’t matter. It more than likely really doesn’t. Yes, plenty of women LOVE football (I’m one of them) but the largest audience are men. It makes sense to me that the majority or all of the coaches and referees and other people who pose as authority figures on knowing HOW to play the game of football are people who were actually in a position to play the game and have a deep interest, knowledge and love for the game.

    If anything is sexist, its the lack of a women’s team for football in schools and professionally but if there is no public interest in it there is no profit in it and it will not happen. Women’s basketball is still very far behind men’s basketball in sheer public interest.

  4. Serena
    Serena September 20, 2009 at 10:41 am |

    I think Azalea has some good points, but I have to disagree that the WNBA is far behind the NBA. Attendance at women’s games has consistently been increasing. The salaries certainly have a long way to go – but in terms of popularity and coverage I would say that it’s gotten much better.

    There is a professional league for women (two of them, in fact), but this is where the huge disparity lies. The tickets are as little as $6 per game, most of the teams play on high school fields, and there is absolutely no media coverage of the games. The women and fans who participate do it for the love of the game. So I do agree that if the professional league was more viable that there would certainly be more women referees.

  5. Comrade PhysioProf
    Comrade PhysioProf September 20, 2009 at 12:51 pm |

    The NY Times is notorious for dismissively viewing anything women do as some sort of cute curiosity:

    http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2008/07/26/teh-laydeez-are-so-cute-when-they-try-to-blog/

  6. Shanya Almafeta
    Shanya Almafeta September 20, 2009 at 1:39 pm |

    Huh, KC has a team, the Spartans… I may just have to attend a game.

  7. smmo
    smmo September 20, 2009 at 1:43 pm |

    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.

    No. Nearly all football officials have other careers, so her sex is actually the interesting part of her story. A female official in football is highly unusual.

    and assures his readers that this career path is all right with her husband.

    That might have been the subtext but what I heard was a family balancing personal responsibilities with professional opportunities.

    He makes sure to include an anecdote about how out-of-place Thomas looked when she continued refereeing through her pregnancy

    It was Thomas herself that stated that during pregnancy was the only time she felt out of place on a football field. We can’t know what other anecdotes she shared with the writer.

    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

    That day will be long after I’m dead, so for now we need to acknowledge it when women break down barriers.

  8. Kat
    Kat September 20, 2009 at 1:46 pm |

    My sons (7 and 12) both play football with our City’s rec league. The older son has had two years where he has had one girl on his team (two different girls). In both cases, each girl was a very competent football player, and you would hear the parents saying things along the lines of “well she has earned the other players’ respect”. Well. Yes, she has. But, should she have to? I mean, some of the male players are rather, um, goofy and they are just automatically considered part of the team. I mean, there is an understanding of all the players of each others talents — they know who is good and who isn’t — but it seems to me that it would be a tough thing for a goofy female player to have a place in the “team”. I hope not, but it seems like that would be the case.

    Just yesterday, at the 7-year-old’s game, we had a female referree. The same rule seemed to apply. Everyone seemed to note her gender, but once she “proved” herself to be a good referree (and she was) all was “okay”.

    It is nice to see female players and referrees. But there is definitely a scrutiny there, that is not applied to the male players/referrees.

  9. platon20
    platon20 September 20, 2009 at 10:11 pm |

    I’m sorry, but the WNBA is nowhere near as popular as the NBA, and even many years after its inception the vast majority of teams are still funded by the NBA and would go bankrupt without revenues from the NBA paying for their sport.

    It has nothing to do with lack of broadcasting either.

    The bottom line is that men go to more sporting events and are willing to pay more money than women are for sports entertainment.

  10. Jill
    Jill September 20, 2009 at 10:18 pm | *

    Uh, platon20, no. Agreed that the WNBA is not nearly as popular as the NBA; it’s not. Disagreed — strongly — with the reasons why. Because even if men are willing to go to more sporting events and pay more money than women are, that doesn’t explain why men will only go to sporting events featuring other men.

  11. robyn
    robyn September 21, 2009 at 1:15 pm |

    I have been officiating men’s tackle football off and on for 22 years. I did not officiate pregnant, kinda irresponsible if you ask me, instead I worked the clock for major college games.

    I still get the sideways looks but I have reconsiled myself to being a bit of a sideshow…until the first snap…then it is business as usual.

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