Breaking down barriers
Virginia Beach teacher tapped as NFL’s first Black woman official
Maia Chaka, a health and physical education teacher at Virginia Beach’s Renaissance Academy, will be the National Football League’s first Black female referee, the league announced in March. A 2006 Norfolk State University alumna, Chaka has been officiating football since 2007, a journey that took her from high school games to the NCAA’s Division I, including bowl games.
Chaka is only the second woman ever to join the NFL officiating staff, and she’s been training with the league since 2014, when she was chosen to be part of its new NFL Officiating Development Program at age 31. This upcoming season, after years of work and perseverance, Chaka has been added to the NFL roster and has been recognized nationally as a trailblazer.
Although her officiating schedule will keep her busy, working with students continues to be her “No. 1 passion,” she says. “I always want to be involved in my community, always want to be within my school district, [and] I always want to be able to give back.”
Virginia Business: Let’s start by just talking about your relationship with sports. Did you like to play sports when you were younger?
Maia Chaka: I was just a gym rat, a complete gym rat growing up. I did everything at a young age: swimming, gymnastics. I played football in the neighborhood with the boys all the time. Outside of football, I organized sports, I played, I ran track, softball. I played everything competitively except for football, for the most part.
VB: Did you watch football much? Were you a fan of certain teams growing up?
Chaka: Not necessarily a fan of teams, but I watched all the time, and I played tons of [“Madden NFL” video games] on Sega Genesis.
VB: You’ve been officiating football for more than a decade now in high school and college leagues. What is the most exciting thing about being on the field as an official?
Chaka: I think just being able to see the plays up close and personal. Especially as you start to progress in your career, and you start looking at high-level competition or highly skilled players. I’m always in awe to see a player run or hurdle [over] someone. In high school, hurdling was illegal. Then once I started officiating college, and in some other professional leagues, that became a big thing. Everybody’s hurdling. When you see those kinds of moves, or when you see a nice spin move or even just a good clean hit, those are the things I enjoy the most.
VB: Has anyone ever run into you?
Chaka: Never been run into. I’ve never been run over or knocked down. I’ve never fallen on the field or anything. Knock on wood. Don’t jinx me right now.
VB: In 2014, you were chosen by the NFL for its Officiating Development Program. How does that process work?
Chaka: There’s a pool of about somewhere close to 4,000 officials, give or take a few. I believe 2014 was only the second year of this development program. At that time, they were really only selecting 21 officials out of that pool of 4,000. The 21 has now grown to a larger number — closer to 30 or so — but pretty much the criteria are [that] you have to show promise and have a lot of potential. You have to be coachable. Obviously, you have to have a good under-standing of the game of football, and you have to be excelling on the level that you’re currently working. At the time, I was working for [NCAA Division I] Conference USA, and I just finished working at my first bowl game.
Obviously, there was something that they saw in me that they liked, and they wanted to just bring me into the program and train me and work with me.
I really can’t pinpoint exactly what the formula is and why the NFL chooses who they choose to be a part of the program. I just know that they just look for solid officials. You have to be solid both on the field and off the field.
VB: When you go to training, how much time does it take out of your regular, everyday life?
Chaka: Pretty much once the spring hits, you have to prepare for July. All this is before the season even starts. Like, the football season itself doesn’t really start until August, when they really start going pre-season, but after you go to [a training] clinic, you’re sent to a training camp.
At the training camp, you work a pre-season game. Once you finish your pre-season game, you now go back and work your college season. That goes from August all the way up until December and January. At the end of your college season, you’re invited to come back and work for the College Football All-Star Game [in late January].
That’s one of the games where the players are preparing for the NFL draft. You have to switch gears from your college rule book, pick up your NFL Rulebook again, and you have to use that set of rules for those players.
It’s pretty much a yearlong commitment. You sacrifice a lot of holidays. You’re going to miss out on a lot of family time. You’re going to miss out on weddings, birthdays.
VB: After you’ve done training, how long does it usually take to get hired for the NFL season?
Chaka: I think I was on the program longer than anybody else was — four straight years, then two years off. For me, it’s a little different because I was brought in so young. I worked my first Division I football game when I was 28 after only working three seasons of high school football. I interviewed for the NFL when I was 31, after only working three seasons of Division I football. When they brought me into the program, I was very green. I had a lot to learn.
VB: Do you feel like things really shifted for you in your last year of training?
Chaka: During this last year, I felt I had a great understanding of the game because I’ve been around it for a while. I’ve gotten used to what it takes to actually be a professional, what it takes to be successful.
Also, as a female, to establish a solid network of people that I could communicate with is just one of the benefits about being in the program for so long. Pretty much all the new hires, you’ve worked with them.
I’ve got an understanding of how much I had to slow down on the field. As a woman out there, we want to show that we can keep up and that we can compete with these guys, when in all actuality you have male officials that are [in their] upper 50s and 60s who don’t move that fast anymore, but they’re always in the right place to make the right call. [I had] to watch film on the older officials to really get a good understanding of how I needed to slow down. I didn’t need to sprint.
VB: Can you explain to me what a line of scrimmage official does?
Chaka: We do everything, and I’m not even lying about that. We’re probably the only position on the field that can make a call on every single play. We get everything, like the false starts, defensive offsides, anything that deals with illegal formation. We have to have a legal [ball] snap, so the play doesn’t start unless we know that we have a good clean snap. We’re the alpha and the omega of the game.
We look for blocks. We start looking for things like holding [another player] or blocking back. We also have to look for pass interference and illegal contact.
Once the play is over, we’re in charge of spotting the ball where the play ends. We’re also involved in penalty enforcement when there’s a foul that occurs on the play.
We’re the brains of the crew. It’s the most difficult position in the National Football League to work, seriously, because of how intricate everything is. You have to be able to take information and process it quickly once the play is over.
VB: That sounds like so much concentration over a three-hour period.
Chaka: It is, definitely. Players get timeouts; officials don’t. We’re on the field, we’re on our feet, no matter what the weather. It’s almost like the mailman — rain, sleet or snow, they don’t care. It could be 40 degrees below zero, and we’re still out there. We don’t get to go on the sideline by the heaters.
VB: What it was like officiating during COVID-19?
Chaka: I worked in the [Pac-12 Conference] this year. I prepared so much to work in the Pac-12, and when we were supposed to kick off in September, they canceled their season. Then they decided at the last minute that they wanted to have a season. Our season started in November, when the season usually ends. We had a lot of cancellations and movement of games. I had games that I was supposed to work on a Friday that eventually ended up being played on Sunday. Not knowing if your game was going to be canceled or if it was going to be moved, preparation is key.
VB: Why do you think that you’re the first Black woman hired as an on-field official by the NFL? Why not someone years ago, do you think?
Chaka: For me, it’s just by default. If you look at the timeframe and where I was at a specific time, there really were only two women who were working Division I football. [Ed. note: Along with Chaka, Sarah Thomas was a Division I official then. She became the NFL’s first female official in 2015.] It was so weird because it was 2011. You would think that there would be more women involved by then, but there really weren’t. [Now], there’s tons of women that are involved. We actually have a couple that are in the [NFL] development program that are working very hard and they’re actually really good. I think with them, it’s only a matter of time before they get their shots to come to the league. I just think it’s a matter of women actually stepping outside the box and trying something. Also, [for] us in these leadership positions, we have to do a better job at recruiting and giving opportunities for young ladies.
VB: What are your students’ thoughts on your accomplishment?
Chaka: My students are very excited. This is actually funny — [in-person] attendance at my school has actually increased since the announcement was made. All my students come to class now.
Even on the Zoom meetings, it’s funny, I have parents ask, “Is that your teacher? She was on the ‘Today’ show!” I’m happy that it has that type of positive effect. I am able to give them some encouragement to come to school just to achieve and just to work a little bit harder.
We specialize with kids with unique needs, like a lot of behavior problems. Our school is predominantly male, [but] I have had quite a few young ladies throughout the years. I try to be a role model for them, to lead by example and encourage them to do something different.
I just love being able to share parts of my world, expose them to something that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to.
VB: Do you plan to continue working as a teacher?
Chaka: I’m definitely going to continue working as a teacher. Well, I don’t know if I’m going to be a teacher, but I still want to be in my school district. It all depends on what opportunities arise, but working with youth is always going to be my No. 1 passion. Always.
VB: What do you imagine it will be like 10 years from now in the NFL for officials?
Chaka: At least 50-50 in terms of minorities and a staff that really represents the players and the fans, because you have a lot of women who are huge fans of football.
VB: What do you think you bring to this sport?
Chaka: I guess I’m a big fan of humanity, and I just like to bring the human aspects of things. In the game — where everything is professional, where everything is black and white a lot of times — sometimes we’ve got to just stop and think. Let’s do what’s best for the situation or what’s best for this person right now, and not necessarily because it is the hard, black-and-white rule — when you just really work for the spirit of the game. ν