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For Women’s History Month, Rochester native Maia Chaka on being the NFL’s first Black woman referee

Maia Chaka portrait photo
Photo provided
JB Agency
Rochester native Maia Chaka is the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game.

In September 2021, Rochester native Maia Chaka made history when she became the first Black woman to be a National Football League referee. Chaka is one of only two female referees in the NFL. The first, Sarah Thomas, was hired in 2015. WXXI’s April Franklin spoke with Chaka about her Rochester roots, mentorship and creating new opportunities in a male-dominated league.

April Franklin: Maia, you just completed your first season as the first Black woman referee in the NFL. Tell me about your experience.

Maia Chaka: Wow, a lot of growing pains. I had a solid rookie season, and the reviews that I received, I guess I surpass expectations of what they thought I probably could perform. I took on all challenges and there was a lot of preparation. I had a lot of support from the crew I was working with, which I think is important. They put me with a great mix of guys who were just willing to teach me and I was just a sponge. Just like anyone who has brothers, you have to let them know that you're not just a little sister and you’re there and you have a voice. I was with a group of guys who allowed me to do that. They allowed me to get “buck” with them, for lack of a better term. Just take it for what it was and then let me grow from there.

I think that it was great being able to communicate with coaches and players. Stepping on the field each week with people who everyday people admire. Some of these really superstar players came up to me and let me know they were happy that I'm on the field because they have moms and daughters and the importance of my representation. I think that just having their support made me feel more comfortable and at home.

Franklin: You said you made the transition from basketball to football because of your love for officiating. Tell me about that journey.

Chaka: I just always had a passion for athletics. And I think that stems back from being in the Boys and Girls Club. That was my first job working in the gym there. I think that's what probably inspired me to become a PE teacher. While I was an undergraduate at Norfolk State, I had a lot of extra time on my hands because I transferred from a junior college. I went to Finger Lakes Community College first, which a lot of people don't know. Only so many of your credits transfer, when you're transferring from out of state to somewhere different. It'll be completely different had I went from Finger lakes to Brockport. It essentially took me five years to graduate. While in undergrad, I realized that I'm not going to make any money as a women's professional basketball player. I decided to look at everything else that I can do to create and generate streams of income as a health and PE major.

By taking a health fitness track, I became a personal trainer and worked as a gym attendant as part of my work study. My job was to hire and to monitor the officials that got to work on the intramural games. I noticed that the agencies that we were getting officials from just weren't good. I think, because we weren't really paying them. As for myself, I've developed relationships with them where I would trash-talk the referee and they trash-talked me back. One guy said, “If you really think you can be better than me, why don't you do it?’ And I said, “All right, bet. I’ll do it.”

My journey was to set out to be a basketball official first because that's where my comfort zone was, but the training classes to be a football official happened before. A coworker talked me into it. He said, "There aren’t any women that are doing football, and you'd be perfect because you're an athlete, you understand the game, and you're confident.”

The person who gave me my opportunity was someone who didn't look like me. He’s a white male, which is the last person you think would be supportive of you coming into a predominantly white male advocation. So, he talked me into breaking that barrier and he helped me get through high school officiating and he knew his limitations were only going to take him but so high. He continued to push me and challenge me and he mentored me all through high school (officiating) and mentored me once I got to division one ranks. He believed in me that much and he continued to believe in me. He was just an all-around professional mentor for me and opened up doors that I probably couldn’t open for myself.

Franklin: How important is mentorship to you and paying it forward?

Chaka: I spent 15 years teaching in alternative education for at-risk youth. I was always able to influence students a lot better than some of the other teachers were. Maybe because I look like them, maybe because I talk like them, or maybe because I was a sneakerhead, like most of these kids. I have the power of influence. Now that I've reached this pinnacle, this highest level of this profession with the National Football League, and I'm verified on social media platforms that's all the kids care about is that you got the blue check. They're not gonna listen to you unless you have a blue check.

My message hasn't changed, I'm still the same me. But knowing that I'm "big valid" in their words makes what I'm saying to them even more worthwhile. I now have access to more resources and people who I've met in my professional life, that are able to come back and they're able to speak to kids. So, I have the students who won't necessarily be exposed to the things I'm exposed to and I'm now able to bring it to them to let them understand these things are possible. I'm putting these pieces in your life, this is now your network, you're now being taught by these industry professionals. This is where you aspire to be, these people are telling you how to get there, this is no longer a dream of saying well, this isn't possible because these opportunities only happen to these particular people. I want to make those things possible for everybody that I know.

Franklin: Who were your mentors here growing up?

Chaka: I didn't really have mentors. I had people that I looked up (to) and I looked at, and I tried to idolize a little bit, and they didn't know. Pretty much if you are a female, and you went to Edison, and you played basketball, and you were ahead of me, like that's who I wanted to aspire to be like. The girls' basketball team at Edison in the ’90s was always the flyest. They were playing like boys. They always had the new Jordans, and they were always fresh.

Of course, my family. I looked up to my grandmother a lot, I looked up to what my father did during his heyday. Those are just things that I was able to grow up around. And the beautiful thing about Rochester and my family unit is when they say it takes a village to raise a child. I was raised by so many family friends, that were able to contribute to different parts of my family. And I think that's really important. And if we get back to that value and get back to being able to let other people in to support us as a community. And not being afraid to tap in when we see that you have someone that is struggling to get to lend a helping hand. If we get back to that basic system of it really takes a village, I think we can be more successful as a whole.

Franklin: The NFL has been around since 1920 and had its first Black referee in 1965, and they didn't get a woman referee until 2015, and then you in 2021, as the first Black woman referee. It took a very long time for those firsts to happen. What ways do you think that the league can do a better job in creating pipelines of opportunity for more diversity?

Chaka: I don't think their responsibility is just all on the league. The responsibility also falls on us who are in these positions. What are we doing, to make sure that we're strengthening that profession and providing those extra opportunities for women and making sure that these women are qualified, and they're being looked at?

Obviously, they've developed the pipeline by putting us in these positions. Now it's time for us to go back to our communities and also assist, right? I think it was difficult for me because there wasn't anyone ahead of me. This is a path that I really had to paint on my own. Other than one other woman who was in front of me, and we came in the program together. So we were, you know, trying to feel it out. We were classmates at that point. I was very fortunate that she went in before me, because there were some things that she learned that she was able to come back and teach me. “You do it this way, not this way, and learn from my mistakes, or learn from my hardships."

I think it really falls on our shoulders to go back and recruit. Now that we do have representation out there, people can see that there's a possibility that they can be involved in football, even though they didn't play. We do have some women who have played tackle football, but in my case, I didn't play. I just had a love for officiating and a love for the game. And I think it's just us to be able to step outside that box, and let people know the sky's the limit for you. As long as you have a passion for something, and you want to apply yourself to it.

Franklin: Rochester in recent years has made national headlines and it hasn't been positive. From your perspective, hearing about your hometown and some of the things that are happening, what are your thoughts?

Chaka: Well, (Rochester) wasn't that positive when I was there growing up, to be honest with you. I think a lot of that is, Rochester has always had this shadow. When somebody says "I'm from New York,” they think you’re from the city. And they don't really realize, “No, I'm from Rochester, New York." I take pride in being there. I think that we've always had to prove ourselves to be that underdog city. So when you come from that type of environment, that type of mentality, it's in you that you're a natural fighter. It's like, “I'm tired of people telling me that I'm not good enough because I'm not from this area from New York."

And when you're from the heart of the city (Rochester), we were always fighting against the greater Rochester area in sports. At Edison Tech, we won the city championship every single year when I was there and, but you only win X amount of Section V titles because we had to go through the Fairports and the Greece Athenas, they were always put on the pedestal. As city of Rochester athletes, it was really hard for us to pave our way. We were always overshadowed by other players in schools that have more money and that have more exposure.

I think I've always carried that grit with me knowing that that's what made me. This is what made me who I am, and I'm very proud of where I came from. I'm not going to say I'm from any other part of New York other than Rochester because we do need someone who will pat us on the back and say, “Hey, I'm from here and I made it from here." Anybody can make it, and all things are possible as long as you just keep persevering through whatever is put that you put in front of you.

Franklin: Thank you so much. Is there anything that you wanted to add that I didn't ask you?

Chaka: I can’t think of off the top of my head just now. 585 till I die. I’m always gonna represent. Never home but always reckon, because we need that representation.

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.