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No. 19: Sarah Thomas

This fall, Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to officiate an NFL regular season game. Amy Trask, the first female CEO in NFL history, looks back at her time in the league and projects what Thomas will face this season

Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.

By Amy Trask

I have never met Sarah Thomas, but I appreciate the significance of her achievement. When Sarah Thomas takes the field as an official at the start of the 2015 season, she will be the first woman to do so (other than in a temporary, replacement capacity) in the National Football League. I congratulate her and I wish her the very best for continued success.

I also hope that Sarah Thomas is booed.

When Sarah Thomas throws a flag she shouldn’t have thrown—which she will, as all officials do—she should be booed. When Sarah Thomas fails to throw a flag she should have—which she will, as all officials do—she should be booed. Sarah Thomas should be booed as loudly and as resoundingly as her male colleagues are booed.

Gender equality means gender equality. And if gender equality is the expectation, all consequences that flow therefrom must be accepted, whether one likes them or not.

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When Sarah Thomas takes the field, she should do so without regard to gender. If one wants to be considered without regard to gender, then one should not consider one’s gender. Since I do not know Sarah Thomas, I do not know whether our views on these issues are similar. My hunch, though, is that Sarah Thomas has comported herself without regard to gender throughout her career.

It makes no sense to undertake one’s responsibilities—on the field, in an owner’s meeting, in a boardroom, as a physician, as a judge, as an astronaut, as a farmer, in the military, or otherwise—with any thought given to one’s gender. How can a woman hope (or insist, or demand) that she be considered and treated without regard to gender, while giving thought to her gender?

Might Sarah Thomas encounter some gender-based resistance? Of course.

My experience suggests she will not encounter any such resistance from Pete Morelli, the head of her officiating crew. I never encountered anything I believed to be gender-based resistance during any of my interactions with Pete or with any other officials. I never sensed that Pete or any other officials treated me any differently than they treated my male counterparts. (Some of them did not like my shouting and swearing—but to the extent they objected to it, I do not believe they did so because I was a woman.)

My experience suggests that she will not encounter any such resistance from players. I never encountered anything I believed to be gender-based resistance during any of my interactions with players (Raiders or otherwise). I never sensed that players treated me any differently than my male counterparts. Some of them did not agree with me on some substantive matters, but to the extent they disagreed with me, I do not believe they did so because I was a woman.

But might Sarah Thomas encounter some gender-based resistance from others? Of course. What do I believe she should do if she does? Her job. Sarah Thomas’s best response to any such resistance is to do her job and to be the best official she can be. Time, effort and energy spent thinking about, concerning oneself with, focusing on or addressing such resistance is time, effort and energy wasted. Let those who are bothered by Sarah Thomas’s gender waste their time, effort and energy on that.

Might Sarah Thomas be tested because she is a woman? Of course. I have been asked if I believe that I was tested during my career in the NFL because I am a woman. Maybe I was. I never thought about it. Of course, the best response when one is tested is to pass the test. Sarah Thomas’s time, effort and energy is best spent focusing on any test she faces, whether she is tested for gender-related reasons or otherwise.

Might there be obnoxious and offensive gender-related comments that are shouted from the stands? Absolutely. Who cares?

I heard an occasional obnoxious or offensive remark shouted at me on game day—most often in an opposing team’s stadium. One time—just one time—when I heard something lewd shouted about my anatomy while I stood on the sideline before a game, I turned around and looked at the person who shouted it. He was about 10. I laughed aloud and with a smile said to the man I believed to be his father: “You must be quite proud.” He put his arm around the young boy as he told me that he was. I again laughed and walked away.

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I learned a lesson though: Don’t turn around. From that point forward, I made an effort not to look, no matter what was shouted. I didn’t always succeed; sometimes, I looked. But the point is this: I did not want to waste one more moment of my time or expend any effort or energy on such things. My guess is that Sarah Thomas learned a long time ago not to turn around, not to look at or engage with people shouting such things. After all, she was a high school official, a college official, she officiated a bowl game and she officiated in the United Football League, including a championship game. So yes, she may well have decided long ago not to listen and not to engage—even if the person shouting at her was a 10 year old (perhaps especially then).

That incident with the young fan and his father was an aberration. It was my experience that most fans accepted me without regard to my gender. I am hopeful that will be the case for Sarah Thomas too.

While there will be some people who will not like that a woman is officiating in the NFL, and while there will be some who shout gender-related comments towards the field, there may also be little girls and young women who take note of what Sarah Thomas has achieved and conclude that they too can achieve their dreams.

If you boo officials, then go ahead and boo Sarah Thomas. She is an official in the National Football League; it goes with the job she has earned.

Amy Trask served as CEO of the Oakland Raiders from 1997 to 2013, the first female chief executive in NFL history. She is currently an analyst for CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. Her memoir, You Negotiate Like a Girl, is due out in September 2016.



20. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback, New York Jets

Who’s got it better than Darrelle Revis? In a span of five weeks this year, the All-Pro cornerback won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, then signed a $70 million contract to come home to the team that drafted him. Revis never really wanted to leave New York, but he got the best of both worlds while also adding another chapter to the New England-New York border wars. He’s the crown jewel of a Jets defense that reloaded under new general manager Mike Maccagnan, and Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense is the kind of scheme Revis can thrive in. The attributes that have set Revis apart during his eight-year career are not necessarily his speed but rather his patience at the line of scrimmage and strong lower body to push off the ball, good news for a cornerback who will be 30 when training camp opens. A lot has changed since Revis last played for the Jets in 2012, but the expectations—that he’s the player who can change the team’s defense, and its fortunes—have not.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)

Q&A with Revis’s Mom: Stories of how she taught him to fight for himself, when his perspective on life changed and about the time she beat the All-Pro defensive back in a foot race

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19. Sarah Thomas, Line Judge, NFL

This fall, Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to officiate an NFL regular-season game. Amy Trask, the first female CEO in NFL history, looks back at her time in the league and projects what Thomas will face this season.


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18. Philip Rivers, Quarterback, San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers makes The MMQB 100’s top 20 for two reasons. (1) In the event the Chargers don’t set any new records for offensive centers used in a season (five in 2014, a post-merger record), San Diego is the best hope in the AFC West to topple 39-year-old Peyton Manning and the Broncos. This offseason, Chargers management has shown a commitment to improving on the 17th-best scoring offense in the NFL a year ago, signing guard Orlando Franklin (away from the rival Broncos) and landing Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon after some draft-day maneuvering. Both should be key pieces in the third season of Rivers’ revival under Mike McCoy. And (2) whether or not San Diego improves on 9-7 and second-best in the division, Rivers will be a key figure in any San Diego bid to relocate, given his reported reticence to live, work and play in Los Angeles and his expiring contract (the extension he signed before the 2009 season included $38 million in guaranteed money and $15.3 million average per year, bargain basement numbers for a quarterback of his caliber). Could San Diego franchise-tag Rivers in 2016? No QB has played under the one-year tag since it’s implementation in 2009. (Peyton Manning, Michael Vick and Drew Brees all signed extensions in the summer months after being tagged, and the Patriots traded Matt Cassel to Kansas City.) It’s more likely Rivers would either re-up or simply retire rather than be franchised, which makes the 2015 offseason a sort of crossroads in what has been an 11-year career with five playoff seasons and four postseason wins.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)

From The MMQB Vault: How Rivers raised his game. Robert Klemko did a deep dive on the Chargers quarterback last October

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17. Jim Tomsula, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers

After a toxic season featuring soured relationships and a middling record, the 49ers were in desperate need of less drama in 2015. Hence the unsexy choice to replace Jim Harbaugh: longtime defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Known in league circles as an underrated football mind (he earned his rank at Division II Catawba College and in NFL Europe), Tomsula didn’t exactly wow NFL nation in his first public appearances. But his players know him as something else: congenial, intelligent and a relentless optimist. Says recently retired defensive tackle Justin Smith: “I have all the faith in the world in Jimmy T.” As San Francisco copes with significant (and unexpected) losses on defense, as well as a quarterback reinventing himself, Tomsula hopes to smooth things over with his positivity and keep the Niners in contention in football’s best division. It won’t be long until we find out if the franchise is in for a fresh start or doomed to spoil further.

George Nikitin/AP

—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)

Mangini Runs 49ers D: A Q&A with Eric Mangini, who is Tomsula’s defensive coordinator after serving as tight ends coach in San Francisco

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16. J.J. Watt, Defensive End, Houston Texans

There are only a handful of genuine superstars in the NFL, and J.J. Watt is the only one not being paid to throw the ball. How dynamic is the fifth-year pro? Dynamic enough to achieve that superstardom while playing the inconspicuous 3-4 defensive end position for a mid-tier franchise that appears on national TV two, maybe three times a year. And it’s superstardom deriving not from Watt’s on-air personality or off-field life—both adequately interesting but far from fascinating—but, rather, strictly from his on-field performance, which is nothing short of extraordinary. Watch Texans film and you quickly realize that, as great as Watt seems in highlights or on TV, those platforms don't begin to fully illustrate his actual impact. He’s the best defensive lineman in football, and the gap between him and whoever is No. 2 is the biggest chasm at the top of any position in the league. If Watt puts together another three years like the three he has just had, the conversation shifts to where he ranks among Deacon Jones, Reggie White and history’s other immortal D-linemen.

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)

Watt a Runner-Up: Last December we polled 26 smart minds from the industry for the first-ever MMQB awards. J.J. Watt took a backseat to Aaron Rodgers in the MVP race. See all the awards

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15. Tony Romo, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

Watch the clip and you’ll see it’s a throwaway line at the end of a heartfelt acceptance speech. Then again, when you’re the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, any utterance can make a headline. Tony Romo’s April proclamation that “we’re going to win a Super Bowl next year” proves the bar has been raised after Romo enjoyed the best season of his 12-year career. He’s on the clock: Romo is 35, with a pair of recent back surgeries among his long history of injuries. The Cowboys, cognizant of the narrowing window, have made splashy—and risky—roster additions to enhance what was a 12-win team in 2014. If Romo continues in his stride, his casual prophecy could turn into a reality. Should he stumble or regress, he will return to being a punchline as he nears the twilight of a career that's still missing a ring.

Rod Mar/Sports Illustrated

—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)

Dallas Does It Again: Once ruled by emotion and impulse, the Cowboys finally appeared to be making sound decisions. Then this offseason happened

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14. Robert Kraft, Owner, New England Patriots

It was sort of like those old Mike Tyson fights in the late ’80s. The brawl was over before everyone had a chance to get settled into their seats. Among the hottest of #hottakes in recent years has been the myth that Robert Kraft wields more power than Roger Goodell. That isn’t the case, but the New England Patriots owner has been one of the commissioner’s most vocal and valuable supporters. Kraft, whose Patriots are the modern era’s preeminent franchise, was front-and-center defending Goodell after the mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case last fall. But the relationship took a turn last winter. Kraft was incredulous one week after Deflategate allegations arose, saying he expected an apology from the league. He went on the offensive after the release of Ted Wells’ report. But then he laid down his sword, accepting unprecedented penalties levied against his organization (a $1 million fine plus loss of a 2016 first-round draft pick and ’17 fourth-rounder). It was in part an attempt to put another chapter of the—shall we say “complicated”—Belichick era behind them. But it was also part plea for leniency on behalf of Tom Brady, facing a four-game ban to start the season. And that’s where we stand today, two weeks after Goodell heard Brady’s appeal and 65 days before the Patriots open their title defense in Gillette Stadium against the Steelers. If Goodell upholds Brady’s suspension, even in part, sullying the reputation of Kraft’s golden boy and spoiling the Patriots’ season-opening celebration, where will the owner be the next time the commissioner comes under fire?

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)

Why I’m Giving Up on the NFL: A beleaguered Patriots fan explains how the circus surrounding Deflategate has allowed him to see the NFL for what it is—and set him free

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13. Pete Carroll, Head Coach, Seattle Seahawks

Innovator, Motivator, Zen-Master. Pete Carroll has been called many things during his ascension from twice-fired NFL head coach in the ’90s to the biggest coaching name in college football and, later, Super Bowl champion in Seattle. Here’s a new one that has to irk the 63-year-old as he enters his 42nd season on a college or pro sideline: predictable. That has been the implication in everything said or written about one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, New England cornerback Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson at the goal line to seal victory. Butler recognized the formation, and the situation—the Patriots had even practiced it before, with Jimmy Garoppolo burning Butler in practice. How else to explain the jump he got on the ball? Contrast this recent turn of events with Carroll’s candid comments to Esquire in 2009, when he was at the top of the college football world: “From the discipline and repetition comes the ability to improvise and be creative. If you try to be creative and improvise without the discipline, you have chaos. But once you have the discipline… you gain the ability to add accent, to improvise with trust and confidence, to make it into jazz.” Six years later, Carroll’s flair for improvising apparently fell in a rhythm and bordered on basic, leaving one of the greatest coaches of a generation with a sour taste in his mouth. The good news: Carroll’s ability to bounce back from failure is the main reason he’s on this list.

Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)

Three-Hawks?: No team in the salary-cap era has ever been to three consecutive Super Bowls. Why Seattle has more than a legitimate chance to become the first

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12. Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

Not since LeBron James entered the NBA in 2003 (or maybe Sidney Crosby the NHL) has a No. 1 overall draft pick started his professional career with such high expectations and surpassed them so thoroughly in his first three seasons. Now Luck is entering Year 4. If the pattern holds true, his Colts, who reached the wild-card round his rookie season, the divisional round his second season and the AFC Championship Game in his third, are Super Bowl-bound. Pro football doesn’t work that way, of course, but you can’t blame the Colts for planning on the pattern to continue. This offseason, instead of investing heavily in a defense that’s good on the back end but sub-par in the front seven, they chose to put more weapons around their prodigious QB. Wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Frank Gore were acquired in free agency, while blazing wideout Phillip Dorsett was, surprisingly, drafted in the first round. The Colts are all-in on Luck. Any other approach would be imprudent.

Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)

Ranking the QBs: Analyst Andy Benoit rankings the NFL’s starting quarterbacks, from 1 to 32, heading into training camp

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11. Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings

What if Adrian Peterson really is that one-in-a-million athlete who can be the NFL’s best running back well into his 30s? Nobody has done it since “Sweetness”—Walter Payton rushed for a combined 4,568 yards in the three seasons he played past the age of 30. Peterson, he of the reconstructed ACL and MCL, hit the magic 3-0 in March and has aspirations to play eight more seasons. Having had essentially an entire year off, he is armed with financial motivation to go with a legendary work ethic: None of the remaining three years and $46 million left on the contract extension he signed in 2011 is guaranteed. Frustrations on that front boiled over this summer after Peterson’s suspension for child abuse charges was overturned by a federal court and he declined to join the Vikings for early offseason workouts. Tweeted the running back: “A lil crazy how one side has so much power that they can do as they please when it come to the contract!... This is not against the Vikings. I am just frustrated that our union did not get guaranteed contracts for its players.” It’s a bit late for Peterson to lament the efforts of the union—it has been four years since the players agreed to end the lockout and accept a CBA many now decry. But Peterson’s employment status in the next three seasons, should he fail to remain effective into his 30s, could and should be a rallying cry to the next generation of players negotiating the next collective bargaining deal, in 2021. And if he doesn’t fail? Well, wouldn’t that be sweet.

Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated

—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)