Sarah Thomas, the first woman referee in American football and her six colleagues pioneering the gender equality

Sunday, January 13, 2019. At the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, home of Tom Brady's New England Patriots, the second round of the NFL - National Football Association's play-offs, the most famous American football championship, is taking place.

The hosts and the Charges of Los Angeles face each other; on paper, the match has no history, too much difference between the two teams, and the results confirm it: the Patriots crash the Californians 41 to 28 and start a march that will take them to the Super Bowl and their sixth title.

Basketball in woman's hand referee
To make history on that Sunday in January, in a stadium crowded with an audience of over 65,000 spectators, is instead someone else, someone who wears neither the coat of the Patriots nor that of the Charges. Indeed, that day an Sarah Thomas writes an important page of sport history, a professional referee of American football.

When Sarah Thomas steps into the grass field of the Gillette Stadium at 1:05 p.m., she officially becomes the first woman to have ever arbitrated an NFL playoff challenge, the very best of the most American sport ever. For the very few that have never heard about American football: this sport sees 22 players competing for the yards scored on the field by moving an oval ball forward and trying to get with it to the goal.

On February 13, 2019, Sarah Thomas officially became the first woman to ever arbitrate an NFL play off challenge, the elite of a sport that can't be more American.

Unlike rugby, from which it descends, here you run more, you can throw the oval forward and there are more physical contacts and scrums. For this reason, the players, who often exceed 100 kilos, are stripped like modern knights with helmets and bulky armour-like protections, hidden by the bright colors of the uniforms. Football is the most popular sport in the United States and the public, partly because of tradition, partly because of the characteristics of the game, is mainly male; for this reason, the advent of Sarah Thomas cannot go unnoticed, and marks a decisive point in the history of this sport.
Which women were the first to revolutionize sports usually considered purely masculine by their presence? Besides Sarah Thomas, which women referees have changed the history of sports "like men"?
Woman linesman of a football match

Towards the goal: Sarah Thomas' field achievements

Sarah Thomas' career as a referee, however, did not begin on 13 January at Foxborough. Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Sarah Thomas joined the NFL on April 8, 2015, when her name was officially announced as one of the league's permanent referees, making her the first female referee in the history of the National Football League.
An event that shook the world of football and "potholes" the wall of information by becoming world class and opening a breach to a world of sport more inclusive and less polarized by gender differences.
Sarah Thomas' refereeing career was not a walk in the park, and involved a long career that began thirteen years ago in university championships. Sarah Thomas also played the pioneering role, becoming the first woman to referee a men's football game. The ascent began there, and since then Sarah Thomas has been pushing herself higher and higher: in 2010, she became a referee in the United Football League, a minor league, and, three years later, she joined the NFL's training program.
Woman referee pulls out the red card
Then, in 2015, the turning point: Sarah Thomas, who in the meantime has also become the mother of three children, is included in the body of 122 official referees of the matches of the championship. Therefore, one record after another, Sarah Thomas managed to cancel the prejudice and to fill the gender gaps of a sport always considered as men’s turf.

In 2015, the turning point: Sarah Thomas, who in the meantime has also become the mother of three children, is included in the body of 122 official referees of the championship matches.

A feat made possible also by the support of authoritative voices from the world of football, such as coach John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, with whom she won the Super Bowl in 2012. 2015, coach Harbaugh predicted a future among the best referees in the category thanks to her outstanding qualities and precision. Four years later, we can say without a doubt that Harbaugh saw it right.

Woman referee: not just football, not just Sarah Thomas

Yellow card
Despite the fact that Sarah Thomas has been a forerunner of the NFL female refereeing, in another very popular U.S. championship, the NBA -National Basket Association, women referees have been a reality for years. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner made their debut among the giants of the world's most spectacular basketball league in 1997, and this year, among the six new entries, two are women referees.
Red card displayed by a woman referee during a football match between men
Even in men's tennis, the women referees - or rather, chair judges - are not a special novelty, but in 2015 the Greek Eva Asderaki-Moore gained media awareness for being the first female referee in history to referee a final of the U.S. Men's Open. International referees since 2001, Asderaki is so tied to her role that she recently decided to oversee a match even if pregnant, being forced to descend several times from her high chair during the match.
Woman referee in basketball
Coming to the most popular sports on this side of the ocean, one cannot but dwell on the rise that women referees are having in European football. In 2017 Bibiana Steinhaus made her debut in the Bundesliga, the highest German championship: on September 10, in the stadium that hosted the 2006 World Cup final - the one between Italy and France and Zinedine Zidane's head butt at Marco Materazzi -, Steinhaus stepped on the field for the first time, to oversee the match between Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen.

Sarah Thomas, Violet, Dee, Eva, Bibiana, Cristina and Romina, seven names that have entered the history of sport, breaking down, each in its own way, another fence on the road to gender equality.

The two teams finished 1-1 on the field, but the party was in the stands: on the benches of the Berlin stadium there were more than 50,000 spectators, among them the President of the German Football Federation Reinhard Grindel and many fans, encouraged by the home club that, for the important event, reserved half price tickets for them.

In the Italian Serie A on the other hand, women became part of the referees' trio in 2010, when Cristina Cini and Romina Santuari debuted as assistant players in the league match between Bari and Parma.

Sarah Thomas, Violet, Dee, Eva, Bibiana, Cristina and Romina, seven woman referee names that have entered the history of sport, breaking down, each in her own way, another fence on the road to gender equality. Seven stories that are only the tip of the iceberg of a movement in continuous growth at every level, a naturally unstoppable urge, because the story lies on that side.

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