Starkville’s Jack Vaughn was an outstanding football official, so proficient he officiated three Super Bowls and more playoffs games than he could count.
Jack died last December of a heart attack. A funny, smart guy with so many stories, he will be missed.
When Vaughn retired from the NFL, he became a replay official for Conference USA.
Several years ago, Sarah Thomas of Brandon became a Conference USA official, a line judge.
“She’s good,” Jack told me one day in the press box down at USM. “She’s really good. I think she’ll officiate in the NFL one day.”
Turns out, Jack, as usual, was right.
Although the NFL has yet to make if official, it appears Thomas will become a permanent NFL official, the league’s first full-time female official, this coming season. Jack Vaughn is smiling.
“You don’t have to be a guy to tell if somebody jumps offsides or not,” Vaughn said. “You don’t have to be a guy to know the rules.”
I’ve seen Thomas officiate several games either live or on TV since. And here’s the best praise I can give her: You don’t notice her unless the camera zooms in.
Officials should all endeavor to not be noticed. It’s not about the striped shirts; it’s about the game. The less you notice officials, the better they are.
Another time, I was in New Orleans to cover a Saints scrimmage. Down on the sidelines, a few yards from the playing field at the Saints indoor facility, I noticed a cute little boy, 4 or 5, playing with blocking dummy. I struck up a conversation. I figured he was a coach’s or player’s son.
“Where’s your daddy?” I asked.
“He’s at home,” he answered.
“Where’s your mommy?”
The little guy pointed toward the field. “She’s out there,” he said, “in the striped shirt.”
And there Sarah Thomas was, blowing her official whistle and waving her arms to signal timeout.
Turns out, she was in a training program for prospective NFL officials.
Turns out, she made the grade.
Good for her.
Good for the NFL.
We’ve seen the roles of women change in athletics so much in my years of covering games.
The first girls basketball games I saw were three-on-three on both ends of the court. That’s because the men who made the rules thought girls too dainty to run the full floor.
The modern Olympics began in 1896. Then, and for years, it was heresy to think that a woman could run a marathon, 26.2 miles. Heck, women didn’t even run the Olympic mile until 1972.
Twelve years later, in 1984, 88 years after the modern Olympics were instituted, American Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon in just under 2 hours and 25 minutes. Men’s winner Carlos Lopes of Portugal was only about 15 minutes, or 35 seconds per mile, faster.
Glass ceilings have existed for women in at all levels of sports. Title IX became law in 1972, crashing much, not all, of the glass.
Title IX, in short: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
The NFL, a private entity, is not affected by Title IX. That why we applaud the hiring of Sarah Thomas as the league’s first full-time official all the more.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.