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The NFL's Sarah Thomas On Why Empowering, Not Being First, Matters

‘If my story can empower anyone regardless of your race and gender, that's what means something to me,’ Sarah Thomas, the NFL's first permanent female official, tells attendees at Women of the Channel West 2019.

Sarah Thomas, the NFL's first female official, didn't spend time working hard to constantly justify her place in the male-dominated professional sports field.

"If you're going through life trying to prove people wrong, that list of people will never end. Stop doing it. Believe and prove to yourself that you belong," Thomas told an audience of more than 500 during The Channel Company's Women Of The Channel West 2019 event.

The first permanent female NFL official, Thomas also was the first female official to ever work a major college football game, the first woman to officiate a bowl game, and the first to officiate in a Big Ten stadium. But being first isn't important to her.

"I know it's very impactful and empowering, but if my story can empower anyone regardless of your race and gender, that's what means something to me," she said, adding that the lessons she's learned from her breakthrough career can be applied by other women across industries who also love their jobs. 

[Related: Women Of The Channel 2019: Power 30 Solution Providers ]

Thomas was never one to sit on the sidelines. In the fifth grade, she tried out for the boys' basketball team since her school lacked a girls' team and she became the only female playing in her city's boys’ junior varsity basketball team in Mississippi. But despite her skills, Thomas didn't make the varsity team the following year. The coach's response? "Because she's a girl."

But Thomas didn't feel bad for herself. The tallest player in the league, she got plenty of playing time and quickly built up her confidence. It wouldn't be the last time she'd be discriminated against because of her gender, but she went on to play high school and college basketball after landing a scholarship.  

In her early 20s, Thomas went to a football referee meeting with her two brothers and shortly after became a high school referee for 10 years. When she had the opportunity to referee junior college games, however, an executive pushed back.

"But I wasn't doing this to break up the good ol' boy's club, I do this because I love this," she said.

Monica Winders, worldwide channels marketing services manager for NetApp, who was in the audience during Thomas' keynote, is also no stranger to being a woman in a male-dominated field. Winders recalls learning how to play golf so she could spend more time with the men on her team.

"Suddenly, I was part of the team because I had taken the initiative to be one of the group," she said. "I wasn't going to be excluded because I was 'a girl.'"

Thomas, a mother of two young sons at the time, was thinking about quitting. During the last game she ever planned on officiating, an NFL scout showed up to watch another referee and instead called Thomas to tell her that she had what it would take to get to the next level. The reason wasn't because of what she got right or what she hadn't missed, but how she carried herself on the field.

"How you carry yourself into a room will dictate how you are treated," she said.  

Thomas was hired over the phone for Conference USA, where she worked for seven years. Then she became pregnant with her third child.

"You can guess what everyone said: 'Sarah Thomas is done. There's no way she can bounce back and manage it all, the work/life balance,'" she said. Thomas was brought on later that year as part of the NFL officiating development program.

After working an Indianapolis Colts minicamp and having a successful year officiating college games, Thomas got the call. She was one of nine officials hired in the NFL in 2015.

"But they didn't say I was 'the first female,' they looked at me as just an official," she said.

One of the most important lessons Thomas learned was never to do things for the recognition. "If you want a title behind your name that's great, but you're just going to be a boss. If you want the people behind you, you need to be a leader."

Women helping other women climb the ladder of success is critical, Thomas said. That means stopping the practice of telling other women about how hard their path will be.

"One thing we have to stop doing is discouraging women from getting on board because you may have had it rough at some point," Thomas said. "You tell them instead, 'You can do it. Just lean on me and be a learn-it-all and not a know-it-all, and you'll succeed.’"

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