Sarah Thomas and Jennifer Welter: How Women Have the Power to Change the NFL

Illustration by Tiffany McFarlane

Around one year ago, a now-infamous video of Baltimore Ravens Tight End Ray Rice beating his fiancee unconscious surfaced on the internet. Around the country, people reacted with horror and outrage to what they saw. That rage reached a boiling point when the punishment for Rice was announced: a mere two-game suspension. It was only after widespread criticism that NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell announced the league's intention to change its policies surrounding domestic violence.

So, out of this difficult time, a necessary conversation about the NFL’s violent culture emerged. For a while, it appeared that the league was making a conscious and serious effort to change its apathetic attitude towards domestic violence. Last October, the NFL championed the “No More” PSA and now requires every single player to enroll in a mandatory domestic violence education program, according to Sports Illustrated.

If you look at the roster for this year’s season, however, you will see names like Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy – two players that were also wrapped up in domestic violence cases last year. While the NFL has undoubtedly made some very progressive steps, there still seems to be a lot of inconsistency as to what the league deems “acceptable” when it comes to domestic violence, and all of this unpredictability begs the question: Where do we go from here? 

The NFL has a long and storied history brushing off domestic violence. Quick fixes are not going to change that culture over night. Instead, the root of the problem must be addressed. One way to jumpstart this transition would be to incorporate more women into the league – especially in leadership positions. Fortunately, it looks like that change is already starting to happen. This past April, Sarah Thomas made history by becoming the first female full-time referee in NFL history. Only a few months after in July, Jennifer Welter was hired as a training camp intern for the Arizona Cardinals. While her internship terminated on August 31, she received rave reviews for her dedication and her fiery spirit. Welter has yet to be picked up by another team but has expressed interest in continuing a NFL coaching career.

There are still some issues we must be aware of during this integration process, however. Most importantly, we must be cautious of scrutinizing every action taken by these women. Welter has already faced serious backlash for accepting an invitation offered by Floyd Mayweather, a boxer also wrapped up in some serious domestic violence charges – despite the fact that the invitation was offered as an olive branch to celebrate Welter’s success as groundbreaking woman in her field. Likewise, if Thomas makes a bad call during this season or any of the ones following, we must ignore those who say it is a reflection of women’s ability to referee football and see it as a professional mistake, removed from the gender conversation.

“I set out to do this and get involved in officiating not having any idea that there were not any females officiating football," Thomas recently said. "No, I don’t feel like a pioneer."

In short, she is simply doing what feels natural to her, and that is exactly how this transition should be. 10 years from now, seeing female coaches and referees will hopefully no long be considered newsworthy, but rather accepted as women just doing their jobs. Just like how RIT is a welcome space for women to pursue their passions in technology, a field typically dominated by men, the NFL should also be open to challenging the gender status quo.