Sarah Thomas: Kicked out of the men’s basketball league, she set her sights on the Super Bowl


The 2016 Grammy-nominated hit ‘Rise Up’ by Andra Day was featured in news shows and commercials—it was played on Hillary Clinton’s campaign trail and performed at President Joe Biden’s inauguration—but in a hotel room in Tampa in February, the song had only one audience.Sarah Thomas had loaded it into her playlist purposefully and she became emotional.
“You’re broken down and tired of living life on a merry-go-round,” Day sings, “But I promise we’ll take the world to its feet and move mountains.”
“It just impacted me so strongly that morning,” the 47-year-old told CNN. “Every word of that song has meaning to my journey.”

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Thomas departed the hotel an hour later and went to the Super Bowl. She was sharing the stage that night with Tom Brady, the Lombard Trophy and more than 100 million people around the world watching.
And they broke another glass ceiling.

‘Go out for THE BOYS’
Thomas says it never occurred to her when she grew up in Mississippi in the 1970s and 80s that there was such a thing as ‘a glass ceiling,’ that there were invisible obstacles that would stymie the potential of women or minorities.

“I never thought of my gender, that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl or what I looked like,” she said. “My dad always told me not to depend on anybody for anything and that I could do whatever I set my mind to.”

Thomas described herself as a tomboy, always hanging out, playing football, baseball and riding dirt bikes with her older and younger brothers. She was never very far from sport—it was in her blood, while her early career objectives were to get into the legal profession.
The aunt of Thomas was basketball coach Jill Upton, who guided the American women’s team to Moscow and A silver medal at the World University Games in 1973.

“I said ‘I don’t have a girls’ team.’ She said, ‘Go out for the boys’ team.’ And I did.”

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Thomas claims she was the first female to participate in the City League of Pascagoula, playing in middle and high school. That led to a scholarship to Alabama University of Mobile, where she remains one of the top five players in the school’s history.

Not a novelty, but the norm

Very few referees or officials want to be the center of attention — typically, the fans will only know your name if you’ve made a bad call and ended up in the news — and Thomas was no different. She was just hoping to stay under the radar throughout the course of her career.
But in the second game of her second season in the NFL, she realized that her mere presence on the sideline was changing the world.
“A coach comes up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you for what you’re doing.'” He went on to explain that the impact she’d been making was seismic.
“He said ‘I’ve coached in this league for a long time and I have two daughters, and they think they know more about football now because of you, not because I’m their dad and the coach.’ That’s when it hit me.”

“I absolutely love playing basketball. I love sports, as you can well imagine!”

Also, Super Bowl LV was revolutionary because two of the winning coaches were female for the first time ever. In 2020, when the 49ers’ Katie Sowers became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl, the Bucs’ defensive line assistant Lori Locust and the strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar advanced the metaphorical ball.

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