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2014 could mark debut of first NFL full-time, female referee

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

Sarah Thomas could become the first full-time female official in the NFL. (USATSI)
Sarah Thomas could become the first full-time female official in the NFL. (USATSI)

The NFL might not be that far away from having its first full-time female official on the field. And when -- not if -- it happens, look to 2014 as the year and look to Sarah Thomas as the zebra breaking ground.

Thomas, 39, became the first female to ever officiate an NCAA football game in 2007 -- as well as a bowl game, when she was the line judge for the 2009 Little Caesar's Bowl -- and after spending a few days in the league's official developmental program, she's on track to become the first female to officiate an NFL game.

The league told the Associated Press that Thomas is "in our pipeline" and 2014 looks like a reasonable target year for Thomas to make her full-time debut.

"It's just something that happened," said Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating. "She was in our pipeline for a while."

Thomas took part in the developmental program during three days of Colts minicamp and will be eligible for a full-time refereeing gig once she's completed the program. In order to actually land that gig, however, someone else will have to retire, bolts the NFL or get run over by Adrian Peterson as he books it to the end zone.

But this probably shouldn't be a huge shock: Thomas has been on the NFL's radar for nearly five years at this point. She'll also have to pass background checks, interviews and, perhaps most importantly, adjust to the speed of the game.

"It's similar from when a players jumps from college to the NFL," Blandino said. "Getting used to that type of speed is important."

That's not something Thomas says she's too concerned with -- just like a player, it takes a little time to adjust to the differences in the NFL and Conference USA, where Thomas works now.

"The speed, yes, is there," Thomas said. "These are just phenomenal athletes on both sides of the ball. The game has a tendency to slow down the most snaps you get and repetition. So, hopefully, the more snaps I get, things will start slowing down a little bit."

The NFL's recent foray into female officiating helps Thomas' cause as well: Shannon Eastin became the first female referee to work an NFL game during the Great Officiating Lockout of 2012.

It's certainly an honor to become the first female ref in the league. But that glass ceiling won't really be shattered until there's a full-time female ref in the NFL. And it could happen sooner than you might think.

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