On Friday, Mar. 5, 2021, The NFL made more, “Her” Story, by hiring its first black female referee. Maia Chaka is only the second woman to be hired as a NFL referee right behind Sarah Thomas who made her-story by being the first woman to ref in the regular season in 2015. She refereed her first Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2021. Thomas did a great job last year, and is currently paving the way for Chaka to be successful.
How the Hiring Came About
Speaking on The Today Show, last Friday, Chaka – who has been training with the NFL since 2014, and previously refereed college football, said she, “never thought the day would come”, that she would reach the historic milestone. “He goes, ‘Welcome to the National Football League’, and I just went nuts,” she recalled of Wayne Mackie, a former NFL official who now serves as vice president of officiating, evaluation and development, who officially inviting her on board Monday.
After Mackie gave her the good news, “I asked him, hey, are you punking me? You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Chaka said. “Because I’ve been at it for so long, I just never thought the day would come,” she added. “I just enjoyed working.”
And the newly appointed Chaka also admitted that on her own NFL role “didn’t really hit me until just now. When I saw the introduction, I’m like, this is real, because this is just something that we’re just always taught to work hard for,” she said. “Sometimes we just don’t take time to stop and smell our own roses.”
Chaka added, “I’ve just been grinding for so long at this, it’s just an honor to be able to join the National Football League.”
Chaka, will make her NFL regular-season debut this September.
Becoming a NFL Referee
There are 29 people on a NFL football field at any given time. That number may seem add, but football has always been a game of 11-on-11, or 22 players making up two-teams. There is however, a third team consisting of seven. Those are the ones in the black and white stripes – our officials.
One would think that there would be some specific schooling or education needed to become a NFL referee, but surprisingly there is not. Most officials are college graduates and hold other full-time jobs and work NFL games. All NFL officials belong to some accredited officials’ association, and like that for the players, the road to the NFL, begins early.
Many NFL officials start at the lowest levels of officiating. It could consist of peewee or youth league games and at some point, they make the leap to junior high, junior varsity, and finally varsity high school games. The process could take several years, but it is very important that they learn the rules and regulations of working a game.
The training one receives comes through on-the-job training. After one has worked through high school games, some will have the opportunity to advance to the college level. The first level one starts at is usually the NCAA division III level. Then they move onto Division I. They will work games involving the top teams including Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and more. The average NFL official will have at least five-years of experience working at the college level, before making the leap the to pros.
The NFL does have an Officiating department that oversees the league’s officials. That is where Chaka was working when she got her “special call.”
Reactions Around the NFL
In the summer of 2014, Chaka was one of 21 referees chosen for the NFL’s Officiating Development Program. She was also one of two women selected as she and Sarah Thomas were ready to show all the guy refs that woman were here to stay in this position.
“There were a couple of scouts around the area and they watched me progress as an official throughout my college career,” Chaka told the The Virginian Pilot seven years ago. “And based upon my performance in college, they invited me to be a part of the program.”
Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino praised Chaka by saying she had a “great understanding of the game”. He also gave his confidence that Chaka would move up the ranks fast throughout the program, much like Thomas did.
“Maia has just worked her way up the ladder,” Blandino said. “She’s shown progress at every level, We looked forward to her continuing her career in officiating.”
Chaka is well aware that earning her new position is very important to continue opening the doors for more diversity in the NFL’s hiring of officials.
“I am honored to be selected as an NFL official,” Chaka said in a statement released by the league. “But this moment is bigger than a personal accomplishment. It is an accomplishment for all women, my community, and my culture.”
This also caught the eye of NFL executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent.
“Maia’s years of hard work, dedication, and perseverance- including as part of the NFL Officiating Development Program– have earned her a position as an NFL official.” Vincent said. “As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Maia is a trailblazer as the first Black female official and inspires us toward normalizing women on the football field.”
Chaka graduated in 2006 from Norfolk State University. She was a high school health and physical education teacher at the Renaissance Academy. It was part of the public school system in Virginia Beach. When she turned 32-years-old, in 2014, she was one of 21 referees picked for the NFL’s Officiating Development Program. She was one of two women selected and the other one was Sarah Thomas who is from Brandon, Miss.
Chaka and Thomas made history together for Conference USA as for being two female officials on the same team for the 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
Chaka continued her officiating as a head linesman for PAC-12 games last season, and most recently worked at the 2021 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. on Jan. 30.
She also was named to an officiating crew in the short-lived XFL revival in 2020 after working Alliance of American Football games in 2019. Although 2021 will mark her first NFL regular season assignments, Chaka already has worked four preseason games as part of the developmental program.
I am so glad to hear about Maia’s promotion on March 1st to the NFL’s officiating crew, and I can’t wait to see how she does officiating in the NFL… Go Maia!