NFL to hire first female referee? Another glass ceiling broken?

Sarah Thomas is slated to become the National Football League's first full-time female official. Are jobs in professional sports no longer an exclusive men's club? 

Kyle Terada/FILE/USA Today
FILE PHOTO- NFL referee John Parry watches a replay on a Microsoft Surface during the 2015 Pro Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. The referee fraternity will be adding its first female member when the league is expected to announce Sarah Thomas, 41 of Mississippi, as one of its eight new officials for the 2015 season

Sarah Thomas made her debut on a National Football League gridiron this past summer, when she officiated preseason games.

This week, the NFL is expected to name her as the NFL's first female full-time referee, according to the Baltimore Sun who first reported the story, citing unnamed league sources. 

Ms. Thomas had previously worked as a football referee at the Division 1 college level for seven years and was the first woman to officiate a college bowl game, calling the 2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl between Ohio University and Marshall University. USA TODAY reports that in addition to the 2014 NFL preseason games Thomas had distinguished herself through the league's referee developmental program, which was started three years ago.

"She has the right temperament and attitude and feel for the game," an officiating source told the Baltimore Sun. "She knows the rules and understands how to apply them in the spirit of the rules. That sets her apart, male or female."

The league has yet to make the announcement official but Thomas was a finalist for an official's job two years ago. "The 2015 roster of officials has not yet been finalized," NFL spokesman Michael Signora said in an e-mail exchange with the Baltimore Sun. "When it is, the new officials for 2015 and the entire roster will be announced."

Of the four major North American professional sports, women referees broke the glass ceiling first in basketball, perhaps because there's a thriving women's professional basketball league. Violet Palmer has been a referee in the National Basketball Association (NBA) since 1997, and along with Dee Kantner, the two were the first women to officiate in the pro ranks. And this season Lauren Holtkamp joined Ms. Palmer. Also in the NBA, former Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Becky Hammon joined the coaching staff of the San Antonio Spurs before the start of this season, becoming the first woman to take a coaching job in a men's professional sport. In 2009, Nancy Lieberman became the coach of the Texas Legends (an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks) in the NBA Development League.

During the NFL officials lockout at the start of the 2012 season, Shannon Easton became the first woman to officiate a professional football game but was not hired permanently. 

Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League do not have women in the above mentioned positions. There are no female head coaches, nor team general managers in any of the four major pro sports.

While many women are sideline reporters on broadcasts, one of the few who has made the jump to mainstream sports broadcasting is Doris Burke of ESPN, who primarily broadcasts men's and women's basketball, both professional and college. 

While Ms. Thomas's NFL hiring seems all but a formality, she does not view herself as a pioneer despite the litany of firsts on her football resume.

"If I am there permanently next year as a full-time official it would just be tremendous,'' Thomas, who is married and a mother of three, told USA TODAY last June. "I've always said as far as breaking the gender barrier, you never set out to do that.''

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