Sarah Thomas And Maia Chaka Blazing The Trail To Make Female Officials Common In The NFL
By: Barry Barnes, Founder
During the 2014-15 NFL preseason, cheerleaders will not be the only females attracting fans to the field and forcing cameramen to focus their lenses. The attention will be on the ones wearing black and white stripes with maybe just a touch of lip gloss. Yes, female officials.
Sarah Thomas and Maia Chaka will hit training camps to assist in team practices. However, these ladies of the gridiron will make their national debut during the preseason.
It’s not often that landmark history is made in sports today with minorities becoming executives, head coaches and achieving great accomplishments on the field of play. For after being in extinction for over a half of a century, to allow women to officiate NFL games, instead of wearing pom-poms, is a TRUE milestone.
“The long-term goal is to develop a pipeline of female officials,” said NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino, according to ESPN. “Diversity is very important.”
Technically, Shannon Eastin was the first women to officiate an NFL game, but she was a replacement official. Eastin’s first game on the NFL turf was on Aug. 9, 2012 when the San Diego Chargers matched up against the Green Bay Packers, and for the regular season, she was honored with officiating the contest between the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions on Sept. 9.
“It was just amazing. It is the most incredible league around. It’s run with such class and to be a part of it was a dream come true,” said Eastin last year in a review.
Eastin has 16 combined years of officiating football, most noticeably for the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC) and the Arizona Cardinals Red and White game.
Female officials have been flagging football games for decades, just not at the professional level. Female officials are more than capable of recognizing the right calls to make, so that is not the issue. The reason, probably, why women have not been given the opportunity to officiate in the NFL is because they are emotionally driven.
From Pop Warner to collegiate football, officials work in a controlled environment. Players and coaches are advised to not converse with officials on the field. And after the game, the officials disappear.
In the NFL, the officials continue to work in a controlled environment. The difference is, the players and coaches are more vocal and very expressive during competition. During the heat of the match up, players and coaches push the envelope more than any other sport when it comes to challenging officials.
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To have a 6’5″, 250 lb, defensive linemen screaming can be a bit intimidating. Coaches and players alike will use any psychological methods that they can to make the officials second guess themselves in favor of the challenging team. Even to the point of causing officials to see something that may not even be there, such as a holding call.
Men view this as apart of the overall framework of football and they address it mentally in a logical sense, like a game of chess. Women, who are by nature more emotional, may have a difficult time adapting to this environment. Their brains may interpret this kind of sensory input as a personal attack and then, fight-or-flight takes over and boom. The wheels come off the wagon.
Fortunately, the NFL has done their homework and implemented programs like the Football Officiating Academy, NFL Officiating Development Program, NFL Officiating Clinic and Women Officiating Now (W.O.N).
W.O.N. is a program established by the NFL for women who have a serious passion for football and have a desire to become an official. The league with the Women’s Football Foundations (WFF) provide clinics for female officials to train women for the officiating process, instant replay viewing and a combine for on-field experience.
Vanessa Siverls-Streater is the program director for W.O.N. and her colleagues love the fact that women are interested in officiating as she labeled them as “trailblazers.”
“They are definitely trailblazers,” said Siverle-Streater. “Whenever I present the opportunity for them to get involved, I get emails, phone calls, ‘Yes, I’m available. Whatever you need, I’ll do it.’ ”
W.O.N., along with the other programs, was not created only to train women on how to become a NFL official. These programs provide the support officials need to get through the process and how to handle situations on the field, emotionally.
Through a survey of a 100 NFL fans, 50 men and 50 women, all parties unanimously are in favor of having females officiate games. Clearly, majority of the surveyors had one concern, can they handle the players and the tension on the field?
“Really, I think having lady refs is cool, but can they handle those dudes (players and coaches) getting in their face at times? It can get rough out there,” said Keen, who is medical technician from the McLean, VA area.
The NFL would not have Thomas and Chaka in stripes if they believed that these two ladies are not capable of handling themselves. Ultimately, the Shield established these programs to give these officials the tools they require to be successful on the field. And Thomas and Chaka are expected to excel as they always have.
Thomas laid many roads in the world of officiating as she blazed several trails prior to her to NFL arrival. She was the first woman to officiate a major collegiate game and the first to call a bowl game.
Thomas began her officiating career in 1996, starting from the high school ranks. Since 2006, Thomas officiated for Conference USA. She returned to the NFL Officiated Development Program for the second year in a row as a line judge. Maia made her mark in Conference USA as well and came through the NFL program this year as a head lineman.
Both Thomas and Maia are known for making the tough calls during their careers and will not back down.
It’s not determined if either one will officiate regular season games this year. Without a shadow of a doubt, female officiating is on the move in the NFL. Between this season and the years to come, women won’t be recognized as female officials – just officials.
Then, cheerleaders will regain the female touch again.
“I was hoping by getting in there that it would show positively for women,” said Eastin. “Obviously, I didn’t want to go in and have it be a negative experience and not do well, but I believe for myself and women that it was a positive and step in the right direction, and I hope myself and 10 other women in the near future have the same opportunity in the National Football League.
“If 10 women make it into the National Football League, I’m sure the cream of the crop will rise and the ones that are meant to be there will stay, just like the men that get in, if it’s not meant to be, then everything works out, but just for them to have that opportunity to prove themselves at that level, as I’ve had the opportunity to prove myself is wonderful,” she continued. “I just hope the door opens for many more women in the near future.”
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