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After Some Delay Of Game, NFL Gets Its First Female Ref


Today, the National Football League announced their 2015 lineup of rookie referees. It's not the kind of news that would normally get too much attention, but this year it's notable because the list includes the NFL's first full-time female official. Sarah Thomas is from Pascagoula, Miss. She will be a line judge starting in the fall season. Joining me to discuss this is Rick Cleveland. He's executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He's also seen Thomas officiate college football games. Welcome to the program.

RICK CLEVELAND: I'm glad to be here, Audie.

CORNISH: So as we mentioned, she's not a total newbie, right? Sarah Thomas has been reffing for 20 years. She was the first female to work a major collegiate bowl. What do you know about her background?

CLEVELAND: Well, you know, she was a high school basketball player who went on and played college basketball and has always had an interest in sports. Her brother was an official, and she's paid her dues. She came up, refereed for a good long time in high school football on the coast and then in Jackson. She got noticed by Conference USA and has been doing college officiating for the last eight years.

CORNISH: When you see her in action, what stands out?

CLEVELAND: Well, she doesn't stand out, which is the best thing you can say about it. You know, all officials should endeavor not to be noticed. The game is not about the people in striped shirts. And if you notice officials, it usually means they're not doing their job correctly. And I can't remember a time that I've seen a game that she officiated when I noticed her.

CORNISH: But you write in a column this week that you think she is the right woman for the job - how come?

CLEVELAND: A really, really good friend of mine who passed away in December was Jack Vaughn, who was a longtime NFL official. And after retiring from the NFL, he went to work for Conference USA as a replay official and an evaluator of on-field officials. And Jack told me years ago in a press box at game - he pointed her out and said, watch this official; she's going to be the first female official in the NFL. She's really good. And it turns out, Jack was right.

CORNISH: The NBA has had women officials since the late '90s. What's significant about this for the NFL?

CLEVELAND: I think any time a league or any facet of our society becomes more inclusive, it's a good thing. I think football is thought of as probably the most, quote, "manly" of sports. But it's like Jack Vaughn told me a long time ago, you don't have to be a man to tell whether somebody jumped off sides or not. And you don't have to be a man to learn the rules of football.

CORNISH: You know, what is it like for rookie refs? I mean, what are some of the qualities that make a good one?

CLEVELAND: Well, obviously you have to know the rules. But the biggest thing I think Sarah will face is there's a lot of strong personalities on the sidelines. And as a line judge, she is going to be, you know, lined up right in front of the coaches. And she's going to have to hold her own. And she's going to have to be thick-skinned. And she's going to have to say, I know what I'm doing; that's the call, and you're going to live with it.

CORNISH: Rick Cleveland, he's the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CLEVELAND: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.