Sarah Thomas is currently a line judge in college football, but next year she is expected to be working as an official in the NFL. And the NFL knows a good story when it sees one.
So when CNN profiled Thomas on its State of the Union Sunday morning show, it was interesting to hear that the league approached CNN to ask the network to tell the story of Thomas, who is slated to become the first full-time official in NFL history.
“Thomas is being pushed aggressively to the media by the NFL,” CNN’s Candy Crowley said.
(The NFL will surely be glad that CNN didn’t mention last year’s officiating lockout, in which one of the replacement officials was a woman. The replacement refs were a debacle that the NFL would prefer to forget.)
The league’s usual attitude toward officiating is that officials are better seen and not heard. So why does the NFL want publicity for this particular official, including an on-camera interview? Dean Blandino, the league’s head of officiating, said the NFL wants to show that it values diversity.
“With diversity, it’s a core principle of the NFL, so this is right in line with our values,” he said. “Sarah’s worked her way to this point, and it’s a nice byproduct for the NFL that she’s a female. And it’s a great story, absolutely.”
Thomas has been working at the Saints’ training camp, and from all accounts she’s been no different than any other official. CNN included on-camera interviews with Saints players Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore and Roman Harper all agreeing that Thomas does fine work and that players don’t notice the gender of an official.
Oddly, CNN also decided to include a misleading portion of a quote from Drew Brees in which Brees seemed to suggest that coaches would treat Thomas differently than male officials. In reality, Brees made clear that he thinks male and female officials will be treated equally: In response to the first question he got about whether anything was different with Thomas than with other officials, Brees answered, “No, she’s a pro.”
When Brees got his second question on Thomas, about whether he wants to see female officials, he answered, “Sure. I mean they are as qualified as anyone else who is out there.”
Only when Brees got his third question about Thomas, asking if he could foresee anyone possibly treating Thomas differently, did he allow that “maybe” some coaches might not yell at her as much as they’d yell at a male official. But Brees immediately followed that by saying, “we are not going to evaluate officials any differently, whether they are male or female.” (The full transcript of Brees’s comments is here.)
For some reason, out of all that, the only quote CNN used from Brees was the portion in which he said, “I think it would be hard for a coach to yell at a female official, like he would a male official. That is just being honest.” CNN left out Brees saying “maybe” before he said that, and CNN also left out Brees saying male and female officials would not be judged differently.
So the NFL got the publicity it wanted for Sarah Thomas, even if that publicity included one of the league’s top players having his comments taken out of context.