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NFL Makes Right Call on Female Ref

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The National Football League continues to cause controversy, but this time it's because it actually did something right: hiring its first full-time female official.

The league has yet to confirm the news, but an unnamed source told the Baltimore Sun that Sarah Thomas will be one of seven new officials for next season. The former Conference USA official worked preseason and New Orleans Saints minicamp games last spring as a line judge.

In 2007, Thomas became the first woman to officiate a Football Bowl Subdivision game, the highest level in college football. In 2009, she became the first female official to work a bowl game, officiating the Pizza Bowl between Ohio and Marshall. She also officiated the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl and the 2010 United Football League Championship game. Since 2013, she's been one of 21 finalists in the NFL's officiating development program.

She won't actually be the first woman to work an NFL regular-season game, however. That honor went to Shannon Eastin, who made her NFL debut in 2012 as one of the replacement officials during the referee lockout. But that was a temporary gig. And as Fox Sports' Mike Pereira noted (in a column that seemed unnecessarily combative toward Eastin), Thomas went through all the proper channels, the same lengthy training, scouting and vetting process as all other full-time officials.

Try telling that to the critics. Almost immediately after news broke on Friday, Twitter wwas flooded with the usual, predictable jokes about women in positions of power in traditionally male spheres. Aside from the myriad menstruation jokes that we apparently still haven't moved past, there were comments lamenting the "downfall of sports," questioning how this woman could ever understand a sport she never played, and worrying about what might happen to the damsel in zebra stripes when things get too physical on the field and she has to step in.

The issue of whether women can understand a men's game should have been settled by now, though it continues to come up whenever people want to deny equality in all avenues of sports, from media to executive roles to officiating. But Thomas's acumen is highly regarded by those who've observed her, while the men don't seem to be doing that great of a job. Last season was rife with bad calls and overall incompetence, even in the playoffs, to the point at which teams proposed rule changes meant to specifically prevent the terrible calls that hurt them.

And as far as a 42-year-old woman not being able to withstand the physical demands of a position partially occupied by men in their 60s, I'll just say that most male referees don't exactly boast the biceptual fortitude of Ed Hochuli.

One comment from a Thomas detractor in particular stood out: "She can thank Ray Rice." The unknown commenter is not alone -- Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks shares his (or her) sentiment. "It's just like the Michael Sam situation -- if he wasn't gay, he would've gone undrafted," Marks told TMZ. "Instead the league drafts him because I think they are trying to monopolize on every aspect of the world ... the same thing with hiring a female ref. For the league it's great publicity. The NFL is all about monopolizing every opportunity."

The Sam analogy is incredibly flawed -- the league certainly played up his story line, but if it was determined to fully capitalize on his publicity, he'd be on an NFL roster right now. Marks isn't necessarily wrong to point out that every move the NFL makes is calculated to benefit its image. It's probably not a coincidence that Thomas has been up for this promotion since 2013, and she got it right after the NFL had its dismal public-relations year. Its Ray Rice damage control has included hiring at least three women to high-profile positions: Anna Isaacson as vice president of social responsibility; Dawn Hudson as chief marketing officer; and, most recently, Elizabeth G. Nabel as the league's first chief medical officer.

Nabel is an eminently qualified physician, president of the Brigham and Women's Hospital, but her appointment did raise some eyebrows -- not because she's a woman, but because she's a cardiologist and not an expert in concussions or brain trauma, the most pressing medical issues facing the NFL. She's also closely tied to the Kraft Group, the holding company of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

But Thomas has no such question marks. She worked her way up just like everyone else, and might have even remained in the pool of 21 a little bit longer than she deserved. In his comments, Marks did add that Thomas's hiring is "great" for women. "Ain't nothing wrong with it, especially as long as she knows what she's doing," he said.

For the first time, a woman with a whistle will have the chance to prove that she knows what she's doing for a full season. It might help the NFL's image, but more importantly, it helps women trying to gain ground in yet another realm from which they've been historically excluded.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net