Maia Chaka is walking history as the first Black woman tapped as an NFL game official, yet she is quick to insist this is not about her.
This moment is about the kids.
Chaka has spent more than 14 years teaching health and physical education at Renaissance Academy, an alternative education school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that caters to the needs of at-risk students. She sees her high-profile promotion to the NFL more as a lesson plan for her students than a historical milestone.
“What I want them to get out of it is, No. 1, you see somebody that you engage with every day make it to the highest level,” Chaka, 38, told USA TODAY Sports.
“That should be motivation for you. It’s real important that they have representation right there in front of them. I also want them to know that it’s OK to step outside the box and work with people who are a little different from you. … A lot of times, especially with the kids I’m working with, they’re afraid to work with people that don’t look like them or don’t listen to the same music they listen to. They’re afraid to step outside their comfort zone.”
That’s one way to describe Chaka’s entry to football officiating. It was not a matter of flowing with a comfort zone. During the same year she began as a full-time teacher, right out of college in 2006, she was interested in becoming a basketball referee. That seemed natural.
The teacher who fell in love with football
Before enrolling at Norfolk State, she played basketball at Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York, near her hometown of Rochester. Yet when she mentioned the hoops idea to Shawn McMahon, a colleague who officiated high school football games, he urged her to try football and pointed out that the training classes came before the basketball sessions.
“I told him I didn’t know much about football,” she recalled. “I never played. He told me it didn’t matter because I’m an athlete who understood rules and concepts, and that I’d be great at it if I just tried.”
And look at her now, the teacher who “just fell in love” with football officiating.
She went from working high school games to Conference USA to the Pac-12 Conference. She landed among the crews in the short-lived XFL. And since 2014, Chaka participated in the NFL’s developmental program for officials, which involved clinics, working team practices at OTAs and mini-camps, college all-star game assignments, preseason games and evaluations from NFL supervisors.
Now, just weeks after Sarah Thomas became the first woman on the officiating crew for a Super Bowl, Chaka has broken another barrier.
The kids, of course, are ecstatic about her new job, which fittingly came during Women’s History Month. Hours after the NFL announced her hiring on Friday, a fellow teacher sent her screen shots of social media activity.
“To have students saying, ‘I remember her. That was my favorite teacher.’ Or, ’She changed my life,’ those are the things that I work for,” Chaka said.
Chaka never wanted to teach at a traditional school and chose an alternative education path for a reason. Renaissance Academy and similar schools meet the needs of students who are not succeeding in a traditional setting, typically with behavioral and academic challenges requiring more personalized support. Renaissance has been her first and only stop.
“I’ve always had the passion and the drive to bridge that gap and get people over the hump,” she said. “Some people think that these kids may not deserve great teachers or great leaders. I think the complete opposite. I think the best teachers, the best leaders, are needed in this type of environment.”
As impressive as Chaka’s ascent has been in climbing the officiating ladder, her hands-on mark as an award-winning educator is inspiring in its own right. In 2008, she created a club, G.E.M.S (Girls with Empowering Minds and Spirits), with a mission to bolster self-esteem, attendance and academic achievement.
Chaka’s resume includes awards for Teacher of the Year (2014), Reading Teacher of the Year and I Make A Difference, but she will tell you the ultimate reward is to “enhance somebody’s life, to make it a better life.”
‘Equal opportunity chew-outs’ from coaches
Of course, there’s a crossover effect she brings to the gridiron. In dealing with students, her approach is built on tailoring lessons and communication, depending on specific circumstances and people. The same applies in dealing with coaches and players. Especially in the heat of the moment with debatable calls.
When Chaka mentions that conflict-resolution skills are “a huge, huge deal,” she’s referring to both roles.
“You’re constantly putting out fires with students or whatever it is,” she said. “Once you get to the field, it’s nothing to put out disagreements between players, coaches or whatever.”
Chaka doesn’t believe her gender has influenced how she is treated by coaches or players who dispute calls. At least not now. When she began officiating in Conference USA, she sensed that coaches — known on every level for blasting officials with sometimes loud, salty language — were hesitant to dispute close calls she was involved in.
“I think that coaches were afraid to talk to me,” she recalled. “And so my sideline partner used to get an earful, because coaches didn’t want to offend me or say the wrong thing. So they were leery when I first came in. But after a year or so, it was equal-opportunity chew-outs.”
Clearly, the NFL is convinced she can handle the rigors of the job. Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president for football operations, stressed Chaka’s opportunity was not based on symbolism. It was earned on merit, with the NFL’s officiating department keeping tabs on her progress as part its developmental program.
The toughest thing about her journey?
“Man, I would say … just having to be patient,” Chaka said.
The challenge for her was to continue to grow after she established the NFL as a realistic goal early in her officiating career. Never mind that the league didn’t enlist its first full-time female official until Thomas broke the barrier in 2015, and women officials were (and still are) a rarity on the college level. She was determined to reach the highest level, too, despite getting passed over multiple times in recent years as NFL jobs opened.
“It was tough to have worked with so many people and watch them go into the league prior to me,” Chaka said. “I was like, ‘OK, when is it going to be my turn?’ “
Well, there’s a lesson with that.
“When I finally stopped thinking about when my turn was coming, it became my turn,” she said. “As tough as it is to see your colleagues move on while you are stagnant for a little bit, you still have to find it inside of you to continue to work hard and get better.”