Barbara Barker Newsday sports writer Barbara Barker

Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for

Hey, there's someone who looks like me.

For the first time in the history of the NFL, your daughter or niece will be able to say this while channel-surfing through pro football games this fall.

About 67.5 million women consider themselves football fans, according to the NFL. But until this past week, when the league announced that it had hired Sarah Thomas as a full-time game official, the only women on the field on any given Sunday were a dozen or so half-naked cheerleaders and maybe one television sideline reporter.

If you're female and a football fan, you can't overstate how big this is. Sure, some might call it a public-relations maneuver, something designed to counter some of the ill will generated last summer in the NFL's mishandling of the Ray Rice suspension. So what? It doesn't really matter why Thomas got the job. What counts most is what she does with it.

Thomas, the first woman to officiate a college bowl game, has worked since 2006 as an official in Conference USA. She said last week that she didn't set out to be a pioneer, but the fact of the matter is that she is. And two officiating pioneers said last week that she can expect her fair share of challenges.

"I'm so happy for Sarah Thomas. I think her hard work has paid off," Violet Palmer, who has been officiating in the NBA since 1997, told Newsday via text. Palmer added: "Congratulations! Now the hard work begins."

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In 1997, when Palmer and Dee Kantner became the first women to officiate in a major men's sport, it was a comparatively quiet affair. There was no major news conference. There was no "Today" appearance. Instead of being celebrated as pioneers, the two often were treated as interlopers.

During the 1997 preseason, Charles Barkley, then a player with the Houston Rockets, famously told reporters: "I don't think women should be in the Army and I don't think they should be NBA refs." He has since repeatedly told Palmer he was wrong.

Wrestling referee Marcia Haise, who has officiated 18 world championships and recently was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, endured similar comments when she first began working high school games on Long Island 32 years ago.

"You learned pretty quickly that people were going to be pretty hard on you in a man's sport and that if you wanted to do it, you really had to persevere," the Babylon resident said last week.

Haise said she was thrilled with the news of Thomas' hiring and hopes that the visibility of her position -- the fact that Thomas will be on television regularly -- will encourage young women to follow her into the profession. Haise said there aren't more female wrestling referees because there hasn't been "enough publicity about the fact that this is a direction that's available to women."

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Thomas' hire has generated plenty of publicity, but the league still has a lot of work to do if its officiating crews are going to come close to reflecting the diversity of its fans.

Thomas came through an NFL program called "Women Officiating Now," which holds clinics for aspiring officials and is designed to create a pipeline developmental program to develop women from the prep to professional ranks.

It's nearly impossible to get an estimate of how many women are out there working at the high school level. Locally, there are no female officials working high school football games in Suffolk County. Mickey Kane, who heads the Suffolk County Football Officials Association, said they did have one woman working junior high school games last season. Kane said he also believes that the hiring of Thomas could generate some new interest.

That's something Thomas would like to see.

Said Thomas: "Do I downplay the honor that it is to be first? Absolutely not. I know that it will hopefully open doors for anyone -- little girls or guys -- who think that maybe they can't do something."