Sarah Thomas will begin the 2015 NFL season as the league’s first full-time woman referee. The long overdue move—women now represent 45 percent of the league’s 150 million fans, while female viewership increased 26 percent between 2009 and 2013—comes after a slew of particularly damaging high-profile controversies.
The league's bad press has polarized legions of NFL fans. At the center of the NFL’s problems is Ray Rice's domestic abuse case, not to mention a host of other domestic violence cases, including the revelation that Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson abused his four-year-old son.
In addition, the issue of head trauma and its connection with violence and degenerative brain disease has alarmed parents of young children who might be interested in the sport. The dangers of multiple concussions resurfaced in a big way recently as Chris Borland—a successful rookie with serious potential on the San Fransisco 49ers—announced his retirement after one year over concerns of the high rate of brain injury among players.
Thomas’ role as a mother of three, two of which are boys, serves as a symbol of a tacit endorsement of the sport in general. The NFL could use such an endorsement amid growing safety concerns among parents; 43 percent said they wouldn’t want their son playing football, with 58 percent of female respondents echoing the sentiment.
In some ways Sarah Thomas can be seen as a one-size-fits-all response to the league's PR problems. Although she's not the first women to officiate an official NFL game—Shannon Eastin served for three games as line judge during the 2012 referee labor dispute—Thomas will nonetheless be a much needed female face in the boys club that is the NFL.
But even though Thomas’ hiring marks a significant moment in the history of the NFL, is it enough to undo all the damage done in the past year? Was this a smart move for the NFL or a token gesture?