When I first started to report on sporting events in Mississippi many years ago, I had the opportunity to cover the exploits of a large roster of tremendous athletes. Few have seen their names in the headlines for quite some time, but one familiar face has made quite a splash in the last few weeks.
Sarah Bailey’s presence had an impact at an early age, helping the Pascagoula all-stars capture fast-pitch Dixie Girls Softball world series championships in numerous age brackets. No matter what position she played on the field, Sarah was always the one you expected to make the play when the outcome was on the line.
As she grew older and taller, her skills easily transitioned to the basketball court. Coaches took notice, and she eventually ended up playing at was then called Mobile College (now the University of Mobile). She played so well for the Lady Rams, I once joked with her that the exit off Interstate 65 may be renamed “Sarahland” in her honor.
I lost contact with her over time after she returned to Mississippi to get married and work in pharmaceutical sales, but then stories about her latest endeavor of officiating football games began to spread. After attending an officials meeting with her brother Lea, Sarah was inspired to call high school games. In 2007, she became the first woman to officiate an NCAA contest in Conference USA. She advanced to a bowl game in 2009.
Then on April 8, the big moment arrived. The NFL announced its roster of game officials for the 2015 season. Among the first-year officials was Mrs. Sarah Bailey Thomas.
“I’m a female, and I can’t change that,” Sarah said in a conference call with the media. “Just because I love the game of football and officiating, I do honor the fact that a lot of people consider me a trailblazer. But as far as being forced into a trailblazer role … I don’t feel that way.
“I’ve just been doing it truly because I love it. When you’re out there officiating, the guys don’t think of me as a female. I mean, they want me to be just like them — just be an official — and that’s what I’ve always set out to do.”
The only time she said she felt out of place was during her pregnancies. With her blond hair tucked under a black cap, she kept the game clock while wearing a maternity smock version of an official’s shirt that was put together by other spouses of the referee crew.
Sarah, who lives outside of Jackson in Brandon with her husband and three children, will be the second woman to officiate a regular-season NFL game. Shannon Eastin did so for three games in 2012 as a replacement official.
The nine new referees are graduates of the NFL Officiating Development program, which trains top college football officials in all aspects of NFL games. Sarah will serve as a line judge, wearing uniform No. 53. These officials assist the head linesman at the other end of the line of scrimmage, looking for offsides, encroachments and other fouls before the snap.
“It was life-changing for me when I saw that officials took time and pride to make the game better,” said Sarah, who has worked NFL mini-camps with the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns while also having called some NFL preseason games. “That is what drew me in, especially being a former athlete. And I couldn’t have asked for better training than my time as a high school official in Mississippi.”
Sarah has not been forgotten by her alma mater. During her three seasons, the Lady Rams won 61 games — including a pair of 13-3 marks in Gulf Coast Athletic Conference action. The 1992-93 team won the District 30 championship and a berth in the NAIA national tournament.
Twice a GCAC All-Academic pick, Sarah was also a Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athlete in 1995. For her career, she totaled 779 points, 411 rebounds, 108 assists and 192 steals (still fifth all-time at the school).
“We are honored that one of our former athletes is achieving the highest level in her profession,” said University of Mobile Athletic Director Joe Niland. “We’re extremely proud of what she has accomplished.”
Martha Gore-Algernon, an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team during Sarah’s career, also praised her former player.
“I’m not surprised she’s made it this far,” Gore-Algernon said. “She didn’t set out to do this, but she just worked hard at it and they took notice of her. It couldn’t happen to a nicer person. She was a great player to coach.”
An article in the Washington Post mentioned that there were some rumblings that the hiring was just a publicity stunt following several scandals to hit the NFL. Dean Blandino, vice president of NFL officiating, responded that Sarah has been in their development program for the last two years.
“We feel she’s ready to come into the league,” Blandino said. “Regardless of everything else that’s happening.”
Blandino also said there are approximately 15 women in various levels of the NFL’s development program. One is at the advanced level from where new officials are selected.
Regardless of who follows, Sarah will always be remembered as the first woman to be a full-time official in the NFL. But for some of us, she will always be that lanky girl who was always looking for her next challenge. I guess some things never change.