The National Football League is hiring its first full-time female official.
Sarah Thomas will join the NFL as a line judge.
A Mississippi native, Thomas was the first woman to officiate a college football bowl game and had previously officiated at NFL camps and practices. She was one of two women in the NFL’s advanced developmental program for referees, which has 21 officials poised to be tapped by the league. Maia Chaka is the other female official at that level.
Thomas actually won’t be the first woman to officiate an NFL game. Shannon Eastin filled in as a line judge for the first three games of the 2012 NFL season when the league locked out its full-time referees during contract negotiations.
While Thomas and some other women have been in the NFL officiating pipeline for several years, the league faced a public relations nightmare during the 2014 season over its handling of women-related issues involving its players.
Running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiance in a casino elevator, but was initially suspended for only two games. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later admitted he made a mistake with that slap on the wrist and suspended Rice indefinitely once a video of the knockout became public.
The NFL has hired and promoted a number of women since then, including naming a woman as its first chief health and medical adviser in February and promoting another woman to the new role of vice president of social responsibility last September.
The National Basketball Association already has had three female referees. Baseball has had female umpires work in the minor leagues and in spring training, but never in regular season Major League games.