To fully understand just how important, and how historic, the appointment of Sarah Thomas as the first woman to ever officiate a Super Bowl is, you have to understand just how much of a boy's club football officiating has traditionally been.
For decades, officiating was basically white and male. No Blacks allowed. No people of color and certainly no women.
In many ways, officiating has been more restrictive, more bigoted, than almost any other part of the NFL universe, including coaching. Johnny Grier became the first Black NFL referee entering the 1988 season. 1988. That's not exactly ancient history. It was so unusual to see a Black referee that Art Shell, the first Black head coach in the modern era, once shared his hate mail with Grier because they were both mentioned in the same letter.
After a game against the Jets that the Raiders won, one hate mailer penned: "You and your (racial slur) referee cheated the Jets out of a win." Shell showed the letter to Grier before a game later in the season.
Game officiating has long been one of the core bastions of control for the NFL. It's gotten much better in recent years with more people of color and women, but it's been remarkably slow going. There's no reason for a woman to not have worked a Super Bowl until the year 2021 other than sexism.
Game officials don't need to be world class athletes or have super physical strength. They just need to have good vision (barely), tough skin and be quick thinkers. Still, there's been no women officiating in the Super Bowl until now, and only a handful of others officiating regular season and playoff games until now.
This is the hardened, pinstripe ceiling Thomas just shattered.
Sarah Thomas will be a down judge in Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: The Associated Press)
Thomas will be a down judge in Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida. She made history before now, becoming the first woman full-time on-field official in the NFL in 2015. Since then Thomas has worked four postseason games.
Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, said in a statement: "Sarah Thomas has made history again as the first female Super Bowl official. Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor."
Thomas has been practically invisible in games which is how officials need to be.
It shouldn't go unnoticed that this moment of history comes at one of the most troubling times for the league when it comes to off-field issues. The NFL is still having massive problems with hiring head coaches of color with this cycle being one of the worst in recent league history.
It's so bad that Rod Graves, the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, dedicated to diversifying the NFL's coaching and front office ranks, issued one of its most stinging statements in years.
“The disparity in opportunities is mind-boggling," part of the statement read. "It is unfortunate that the performances of coordinators like Eric Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, Byron Leftwich, Leslie Frazier, and Joe Woods, may not meet what appears as ‘ever-evolving standards’ for becoming a Black Head Coach in the NFL. The prospect for second chances is proving to be even more elusive. The same applies to executives like Jerry Reese, Rick Smith, Reggie McKenzie, and others. All capable of providing the vision, leadership, and expertise to lead a championship effort.”
What the appointment of Thomas, and the lack of Black head coaches simultaneously demonstrate is that the league office genuinely tries to diversify itself. The league office appoints the Super Bowl game officials and if it ran the coaching searches, there'd be far more coaches of color.
But the owners run the coaching searches, and there is obviously a strain of ugliness running through the hearts of some of them.
This one, however, this one the league got right. It's a big deal.
One of the biggest we've seen in history.
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