In NFL, women are in the pipeline

Sarah Thomas, a former college basketball player with a Southern matter-of-factness about her, asked if she could accompany her brother to a meeting of local football officials one night. She wasn't looking to start a revolution, just to find out more about a sport she loved. Sure, her brother told her, but cautioned that she might get a few looks.

Thomas showed up that night and got the looks, but she also got her first taste of what has become a career as a Division I referee. She still gets those looks occasionally, from the Conference USA freshmen who haven't seen her on the sidelines during the past four seasons, but she isn't interested in gathering material for a chip on her shoulder.

"You can't have rabbit ears and hold on to every comment you hear," Thomas said. "The new kid on the block, the rookie, he feels the exact same way I do, I promise."

Thomas, 37, is entering her fifth season as a Division I football official. It's a job she sees as a daily challenge, and one that she has loved despite the slightly thicker skin needed. The fifth year for any ambitious Division I official is also a critical time, as it is when the NFL considers a referee eligible for consideration at the professional level.

"Any professional sport is at the highest level, and if they asked me to officiate at that level, I would not turn them down," Thomas said. "But at the same time, I have the understanding at the D-I level [about] what it takes to keep you here, the energy it takes to get prepared. You are grateful to be officiating at the D-I level."

Carl Johnson, the NFL's head of officials, isn't interested in publicly evaluating potential referees, but he did say that there are women who are currently under consideration, and that he expects he will be hiring one to officiate in the NFL.

"We have some in our pipeline, and I expect we'll see it soon," Johnson said.

In December, the NFL hosted an officiating clinic for about 40 players from the Pittsburgh Passion women's football team. And two women were included in a recent officiating clinic in New York City. The point isn't just to get women, but to get people with a deep knowledge of the game. Drawing from both genders increases the talent pool.

"Our goal is to get the best people working this game," Johnson said.

In general, the NFL scours the Division I ranks using a scouting program that is similar to a team evaluating the best talent at, say, running back. Like players, potential officials need reps. Johnson said five years in college is a good start, and before that, collegiate officials are expected to have five to seven years' experience officiating high school games.

Thomas said experience is crucial.

"It's amazing how the game slows down," she said. "And then things that you studied and are tested on become applicable in game situations."

Thomas is believed to be the first woman to officiate a Division I game, in 2007. In addition, two women worked a Division III game in September 2010.

The NCAA doesn't have statistics on women who officiate football games, leaving that responsibility to the individual conferences. Similarly, the National Federation of High Schools doesn't keep statistics on women, because officials don't have to specify gender on the forms sent in to the governing body.

Compared with other sports, football doesn't include a lot of debate between players and officials during a game. The NFL expects officials to be less about personality than about the game, and Johnson doesn't foresee a problem if a woman were to wear the stripes.

"I think it's going to be well-received, because we have a huge following among females," Johnson said. "All the players want is someone who is going to call the game properly."

He points to a growing fan base among women. Recent polls put the percentage of women watching an NFL game as high as 44 percent. Those female fans extend beyond U.S. borders as well.

Serbian-born Katarina Milojkovic had a goal once she started refereeing American-style football overseas in 2006: to one day be part of a world championship crew. She finally got to do that in Vienna, Austria, in July at the International Federation of American Football Senior World Championship.

Hers was a long path, memorizing the most obscure rules, learning the hand signals, and working her way up through lower-level games, but her transition from football fan to authority figure is complete. The Serbian said she has been accepted by the men who play, fans and her fellow refs.

"They notice but by now, they are used to it," Milojkovic said in an e-mail. "I've had both positive and negative experiences, but overall, I had more positive experiences. Sometimes when players or coaches realize they have female officials, they like to more challenge my authority on the field, but it does not hinder me. I stand my ground, and I have earned their respect."

And certainly for Milojkovic, her experience as a fan eventually led her to the field.

"I wanted to take more active role in this sport then being just a spectator," Milojkovic said. "My friend heard about tryout for new officials and suggested [that I] try."

Sam Rapoport, who has played football for women's tackle teams and is now senior manager of flag and female football development for USA Football, said that officiating is one of the practical ways women can get involved in the game.

"It's a great way to stay in the game beyond playing, and it's a great way for women to get firsthand integrated into the sport," Rapoport said.

And it's just a matter of time until one of them gets a shot at the NFL level. Thomas emphasized that there is plenty of institutional support for women from the NFL. When a woman does join the NFL's officiating ranks, Thomas expects it to spark emotions.

"When something new happens, it is the unknown, the change," Thomas said. "You don't necessarily carry that banner of being first, you do it because you want to be there."

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