Graduating seniors touch the University of Mobile’s Great Commission Globe, a tradition signifying to God that the graduate is ready and equipped to be sent out in fulfilling the Great Commission through his or her vocational calling.
Photo courtesy of University of Mobile

NFL referee Sarah Thomas encourages UM graduates to ‘leave their mark’

NFL referee Sarah Thomas received an honorary doctorate and 265 graduates were awarded degrees, including the institution’s first doctoral degrees, at University of Mobile’s spring commencement held May 8.

The outdoor ceremony concluded a year of uncertainty and precautions.

“You are a special class that has impacted this university and the people here and beyond in many positive ways, and we have no doubt you will go on to change the world and boldly share the love of Christ,” Allie Ratcliff, UM alumni programs director, told graduates.

“You’ve had men and women scattered across this state praying for you before you even arrived, praying for you as you’ve been here. And they will continue to pray for you as you go,” said Fred Wilson, chair of UM’s board of trustees.

Thomas, a 1995 graduate of UM, where she earned a basketball scholarship and Academic All-American honors, was awarded the doctor of humane letters.

Thomas began her football officiating career in 1996 when she attended a meeting for aspiring football officials with her brother. She became the first full-time female official in NFL history in 2015, and on Feb. 7, 2021, she became the first female to officiate a Super Bowl, serving as down judge for Super Bowl LV.

She shared lessons learned on that journey during her commencement address to the class of 2021.

“I want to share a few things that I’ve learned after leaving the University of Mobile that have truly helped me to become the first female in the National Football League. But I don’t hide behind that title, it does not identify who I am,” Thomas said.

So many people get wrapped up in titles, she said, but graduates shouldn’t go through life trying to do things for the recognition.

“Do not go out in life trying to prove people wrong. That list of people will never end. It will exhaust you. Instead, you prove to yourself that you belong,” Thomas said. “Go out and do something because you love it. The recognition will come. People will see it in you. The people you thought you had to prove wrong, they will fall by the wayside. Or, they will get in line and start respecting you on your merit.”

“What you did to be able to sit in that chair today is a huge accomplishment. But what you do with that accomplishment when you get out of that chair today will matter.”

She urged graduates to not fear failure.

“You’re going to come to a fork in the road at some point, and let’s say you choose left instead of right. When you get to that roadblock on the left, don’t start letting self-doubt creep in and make you wish you had chosen right. … Put that in your rearview mirror. Don’t look behind you. Don’t focus on it. … Your windshield is so much bigger, and there are so many opportunities in front of you.”

‘Be kind to each other’

Failing does not mean someone is a failure.

“Your best successes will come from your greatest failures,” she said.

She encouraged graduates to succeed in the right way.

“I’m going to leave you with this: It takes all kinds of people to run this world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be kind to each other in making it a better place. Leave here today and go leave your mark, and make this world a better place.”

Among this year’s graduates were the first students to earn doctoral degrees in nursing and vocal performance. To view the ceremony, visit

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