INDIANAPOLIS, IN – AUGUST 20: NFL referee Maia Chaka #136 is seen before the Indianapolis Colts … [+]
The NFL has hired Maia Chaka as a game officiator, making her the first Black woman in history to be named to the NFL’s officiating staff. Chaka received the news after 9:00 on Monday evening and couldn’t believe it was real. After first asking, “Am I being punk’d?” and “Are you for real?” she realized she had made history and got the job, and proceeded to jump up and scream. “I was just ecstatic because this is something that I worked for—I worked very hard for and I worked hard to do it the right way,” she said. Chaka, 38, is only the second woman to have gained a full-time officiating position in the NFL after Sarah Thomas, who most recently served as a referee in the Super Bowl. As the first Black female to take this job in the NFL’s 100-year history, Chaka is excited but also feels a strong sense of duty.
“I know the responsibility that it carries,” she said. “It’s something I never set out to try to be—the first. It just happened this way, but it feels good to know that I’m able to represent my community and I’m able to represent my culture in a positive light. And that this gives something for young girls to look up to; it helps to feed into their aspirations as well.”
She hopes to see more women and diversity in football going forward. “I understand I’m the first Black woman, I understand Sarah’s already there but let’s not stop it at two,” she said. “It will be nice to see more women on the field with us, within the next few years. It will be nice to see more women in coaching positions.” A rising number of sports positions may offer some hope for Chaka’s vision. There’s an 8% projected employment growth of sports officials including referees between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Chaka remembers playing football in her neighborhood as a child, and then taking on other sports as she grew up since there was no organized football for girls. But she didn’t quite let go of the sport she admired so much, and officiating became her way of immersing herself back on the field. “Once I got older my passion for football just never went away, and so this was just a way of me getting back in touch with the sport that I actually really love, and I just never had the opportunity to play it.”
“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,” NFL executive vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent, Sr. said in a statement released Friday. “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 from Norfolk State University in 2006 and worked in high school football for four years. In 2010 she moved on to college football and soon was chosen to be part of the NFL’s officiating development program—a system that evaluates officiant capability while showing them NFL-level experiences. She has been a game official in the Conference USA and the Pac-12 Conference. With each move, the challenging part for Chaka was adapting to the speed of the game. “When I jumped straight from high school straight to a Division 1 college field, the players were faster, and then when I started working NFL preseason the players were even faster there.” Chaka is also a physical education and health teacher at a high school in Virginia Beach.
As far as her teaching career goes, Chaka has no plans to leave her students behind. “As long as I can I would like to still be able to work with my students because that’s what keeps me grounded and that’s what keeps me hungry and it also keeps me humble,” she said. “Knowing that what I do inspires them to do better—that’s what it’s all about. It’s about being able to groom that next generation of leaders.” Chaka even said her favorite football moment is recruiting and training other girls and women.
“When I meet young girls or I meet other ladies that say that my journey inspires them, and that they want to start a career in officiating, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be football, it can be basketball, it could be softball—whatever sport that they want to be involved—I just enjoy being able to give back, and teach and train and assist those young ladies along with their journeys as well.”
I am a journalist, author and lawyer who has written for CNN, Yahoo News, Teen Vogue, Thrive Global and Poosh. Before joining Forbes as a contributor, I worked on