NEW YORK — Sarah Thomas was a 23-year-old ex- college basketball player when she was thrown off a Mississippi church-league team because she was female. So she joined her older brother at a football officials' organizational meeting as a way to stay in sports.
After 16 years of calling high school and college games, she is poised to become the National Football League's first permanent female game official, possibly as soon as the 2014 season.
"I didn't set out to break a glass ceiling or a gender barrier," said Thomas, a 39-year-old from Brandon, Miss. "If you're doing things because you love them, then things have a tendency to just kind of fall into place."
Thomas and Shannon Eastin, who broke the gender barrier last season as a temporary official while union referees were locked out by owners, are among 35 officials in the NFL's training pool. Eastin is at the lower level and Thomas, a line judge, is one of 21 from whom the NFL will choose the next time there's an opening.
"Sarah's at the top of our scouting program," Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, said in a telephone interview. "Now we're taking an even closer look as part of this developmental program to see who distinguishes themselves and give them a taste of the NFL speed, rules and mechanics."
Thomas' promotion to the NFL would be a "good positive first step that begins to reflect the gender dynamics of the NFL audience," said Aine Duggan, president of the New York-based National Council for Research on Women. "It's important for women to see themselves reflected on and off the field. Having a woman referee is a good step that begins to do that."