Sarah Thomas, the NFL's first full-time female official, headlined an event in Atlanta during Super Bowl week.
Photo: Bria Felicien/AJC
Photo: Bria Felicien/AJC

Sarah Thomas, first full-time female NFL ref, shares story in Atlanta 

In the middle of the week-long celebration ahead of the Super Bowl, the NFL’s first full-time female referee headlined an event in Atlanta focused on empowering women to work in the sports industry.

Sarah Thomas started her keynote by requiring the audience to take an oath. 

“I promise, from this day forward, I will no longer boo the officials,” she said Wednesday on the top floor of the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd building. She gave a lunchtime speech during the day-long GladiatHers Women in Sports Empowerment Summit. 

Thomas made history two weeks earlier when she served as the first woman to work an on-field assignment as a referee during an NFL playoff game.

Sarah Thomas, who a week earlier became the first woman to work as a full-time on-field official in the NFL, handled the Falcons-Jets preseason game Friday night. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Photo: Adam Hunger

The GladiatHers summit was put on by Cecelia Townes, an Atlanta-based lawyer, entrepreneur and former college athlete dedicated to helping women “achieve our maximum potential.”

The event featured workshops focused on wellness, branding, leadership and building wealth and panel discussions with female sports executives from Atlanta United, the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Falcons, the Super Bowl 53 planning committee, and more.

The GladiatHers team designed the conference to encourage networking and conversations, so attendees wrote their favorite female athlete on their name tags to encourage conversation with strangers and after the first two workshops, attendees were encouraged to share what they’d learned up to that point.

In her speech, Thomas told stories of her journey to the dozens of attendees while sprinkling in tips to pursuing a career in a male-dominated industry. 

She discussed her first encounter with an NFL official scout and provided advice on how to be confident in a room. She discussed the moment during her rookie year when she got between Cowboys and Falcons players during a game, and used her “mom voice,” to separate them, reminding people to only work in sports because you love it. 

She mentioned the pressures fines, and even firing, if she misses a call, and the behind-the-scenes work of logging her fouls and getting critiqued and graded after each game.

“Just because I’m a girl, doesn’t mean I can’t officiate football,” Thomas said. “It may be foreign to a lot of people, but I wanted to do it the right way.”

Before the NFL playoff game Thomas officiated two weeks ago, her son sent her a text with a three-year-old meme about the calls she’s missed. He’d wanted to tell her how much she’s grown and the work he’d watched her put in to earn her spot. 

“‘Don’t make this moment any bigger than it is,’” Thomas said, recalling the texts. “‘You’re going to succeed and you’re going to be great.’ Then he says in caps, ‘Because I’ll tell you Sarah Thomas, you will be in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame.’” 

One attendee said Thomas’ keynote gave her chills. Whitney Tipton, whose career in sports started in 2017, also had a strong reaction to the speech. 

“I was trying so hard not to, like, get emotional,” she said. “And I’m not an emotional person but just her story, I connected so much to it.”

Tipton attended the event to advance her career and find motivation to create more opportunities for kids to participate in soccer.

“Just her passion for what she does, her resilience, just how headstrong she was,” she said. “That empowered me, motivated me, beyond. I loved it.”

Halfway out of the conference room to catch her flight home, Thomas turned back to announce her email address was available to attendees who wanted it. 

“We need to all come together and work together and to continue to lift each other up,” Thomas said before heading to the airport.

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