How Sarah Thomas, NFL’s First Full-Time Female Official, Is Changing the Football Vernacular

by | Jun 27, 2017 | Articles, The League

Eric Christian Smith via AP

Sarah Thomas, the first full-time female official in the history of the NFL, is getting a promotion in 2017. Now entering her third NFL season, she’s moving from the position of ‘Line Judge’ to ‘Head Linesman’.

There are some added responsibilities and changes that come with her new position. More on that momentarily, first, a note about the trickle-down effect of her particular move to Head Linesman.

The source of this information is a note in Albert Breer’s weekly column that was posted Thursday, June 15th for The Monday Morning Quarterback (mmqb.si.com).

Breer writes about Thomas’ promotion to Head Linesman and adds: “I’m told the NFL is making a change there, and the head linesman on every crew will now be known as the ‘down judge’. What does that mean? Well, for you, it means there’s be a ‘DJ’ on the back of an official’s jersey rather than it saying ‘HL’. The name change is something the league has talked about for a little bit, making it so there’s the referee, an umpire and five judges on the field. But it’s also a subtle shift to:  A) recognize Thomas, and B) to encourage more women to pursue officiating.”

Hey, the NFL may want to portray this new Down Judge re-naming as a ‘subtle shift’, but let’s be blunt. Sarah Thomas has blazed a trail that is leading to a change in football vernacular. It’s more than coincidence that the name change occurred when she was promoted to Head LinesMAN…oops, we meant ‘Down Judge’.

For those who may choose to lament the ‘political correctness’ of the league’s decision to change the job title to something more gender neutral, that is certainly your prerogative. I, too, often shake my head at some of the ways our culture has bent over backwards (depending on your perspective) to be politically correct and ‘inclusive’.

But as a female who has worked as an NFL/Cowboys reporter for 27 years, I see this as a positive step. Is it breaking a glass ceiling? No. Will the name change have a huge impact? No. Eventually, however, baby steps turn into longer strides and more ground covered in a shorter amount of time.

So my congratulations to Sarah for forging ahead in her NFL career and earning a promotion. I’ve interviewed her multiple times and, in each conversation, she emphasizes that she just wants to do her job and do it well; she doesn’t want to be recognized merely for her gender. If Sarah has her way, this will be the last time her name is mentioned for a long while.

That’s the funny thing about being a member of a officiating crew. If nobody mentions you during the season, it means you’re doing a great job.

Like football players who are deep snappers and offensive linemen, the only time officials get their names mentioned is when they blow an important play!

As for the logistical aspects of her job as Down Judge, here are some of her in-game responsibilities.

The Down Judge (formerly Head Linesman) is one of 7 NFL officials on the field. He/she is positioned along the sideline opposite the press box, overlooking the line of scrimmage. The down judge: directs the chain crew; marks a runner’s forward progress; watches for offsides and encroachment penalties; counts number of offensive players on the field; rules on out-of-bounds play on their side of the field; informs referee of the current down. On special teams (the kicking game), the Down Judge rules on penalties involving blockers and defenders on trick plays. (source: NFL Ops)

Here’s how the Down Judge has different responsibilities from the Line Judge, even though both are lined-up along the line of scrimmage (but on opposite sides of the field).

When Sarah was Line Judge, these were some of the specifics of her job, more specifically, the responsibilities that differ from the Down Judge. On pass plays, the Line Judge moves into offensive backfield to determine if a pass is forwards or backwards; makes sure passer is behind the line of scrimmage when he throws the ball. On special teams, during punts the Line Judge stays at line of scrimmage to make sure only men on the ends of line of scrimmage move downfield before the kick; also rules whether kick crosses the line of scrimmage; and watches the kicking team for penalties.

There’s certainly a lot more to being a Down Judge and Line Judge than what I’ve listed, of course. But that’s a glimpse at the myriad of responsibilities an NFL official must perform each game day.