At the conclusion of the 2022/2023 season, there were three full-time female referees in the NFL. One of them, Sara Thomas, was the first woman to be hired full-time back in 2015 and she was also the first to officiate in a Super Bowl when she was selected to work the 2021 match-up between the Chiefs and the Buccaneers. The second woman ref was Maia Chaka who was also the first female African-American. Robin DeLorenzon became the third full-time female official in 2022, beginning her professional career as a down judge.
After watching football for almost 30 years, it doesn’t matter to me what gender the officials are, just as long as they can tell me what is a catch or not! The NFL rulebook is so convoluted and confusing, that I salute anyone that can master it and capably officiate a game.
How did trailblazers like Sara Thomas and Maia Chaka get where they are? Like any other professional official, it took a lot of work and dedication on youth and high school football fields. And in the case of Sara Thomas, it even took working games while pregnant to work this esteemed position. We’ll examine the paths that all three full-time female refs took to get where they are today.
- There are currently three full-time female referees in the NFL, two down judges and a line judge.
- Sara Thomas became the first full-time female in 2015 and was also the first female to officiate a Super Bowl in 2021
- Like all officials, female referees start by working in youth football games before progressing to high school and college games prior to getting the chance to work in the NFL
First Full-time Female Referee
The NFL did not see its first full-time female referee until 2015 when Sara Thomas was signed as a line judge. A former college basketball player who had spent time as an official for the New Orleans Saints during training camp, Thomas has retained her position and now works as a down judge.
She also became the first woman to officiate in a Super Bowl after being selected to the officiating crew for the 2021 championship game between the Chiefs and Buccaneers. 
This wasn’t the first time Thomas broke new ground. She was also the first female to officiate in a major college football game back in 2009. 
While Thomas caught plenty of glances when she first started her officiating career, she had to rise through the ranks just like any referee. She got her start officiating youth league games and steadily progressed to the high school level in 1999 where she worked while pregnant with both her sons. 
Maia Chaka and Robin DeLorenzo
Thomas remained the only female referee until the 2021 season. That year saw Maia Chaka join the NFL’s ranks when she became the first black female referee to work full-time. Chaka has a background in physical education and previously officiated games in the Pac-12 and the now-defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF). 
DeLorenzo joined the officiated ranks in 2022 serving as a down judge. Like Chaka and Thomas before her, DeLorenzo came up through the ranks and spent time officiating in the Big-10 before getting her chance at the NFL level. 
Female officials have become prevalent in some of the other major men’s leagues such as the National Basketball Association. With trailblazers such as Thomas and Chaka, it’s possible the NFL will continue to see an influx of female officials at football’s highest level too. The next step would involve one of the current female referees being promoted to the head official position which includes announcing calls to the crowd. Perhaps we’ll see Thomas or Chaka rise to this position soon.