The story behind the XFL's female officials
A young girl in Iowa noticed someone she’d never seen at a football game before. The revelation led to an email sent to the Big Ten office.
A week or so later, the contents of that email were shared with Amanda Sauer-Cook. The full-time mother of three daughters had a new fan ... and new friend.
“All she wanted to do was be my pen pal because she had never seen a woman out on the field,” Sauer-Cook said. “It made her so excited. For Halloween she was an official and her goal is to be an official.
“She and I are little pen pals now. Just the fact that there’s one, she knows she can do this now. And who knows how many other girls are thinking the same. This is really awesome.”
Sauer-Cook is one of six female officials working in the XFL this season, joining Robin DeLorenzo, Tangela Mitchell-Ross, LaShell Nelson, Sebrina Brunson and Maia Chaka. Each officiating crew for every XFL game has at least one woman member, a unique distinction in a field still dominated by men. The league also employs replay judge Terri Valenti, one of the female pioneers in football officiating.
The reasoning behind the influx of females isn’t some hollow affirmative-action ploy, according to XFL head of officiating Dean Blandino. He has a long history of championing diversity, going back to his days as the NFL’s vice president of officiating.
“Diversity is extremely important to success whether it be in a business setting or in a sports environment,” Blandino said. “Having people from different backgrounds brings different perspectives and creates better dialogue and exchange of ideas. It leads to better decision making, especially in a team setting. If a group all has the same perspective and think alike, you may miss an opportunity to improve the process. You don’t get stuck in the status quo.”
Every one of the female officials currently in the XFL has a different story, as well as responsibilities. Chaka and DeLorenzo are line judges, Brunson is a field judge, Sauer-Cook is a center judge, Mitchell-Ross is a down judge and Nelson is a side judge. Several worked in the defunct AAF with Blandino, and most have known him for years. All have extensive Division I college experience.
“It came as a surprise to everyone to see females being visible,” Mitchell-Ross said. “There’s one on every crew. When I first saw that and saw the other girls’ names, ‘Wow, these girls have worked really hard.’ I know these girls. I hope that everyone saw that we (don’t) just want to put girls in, but that we have been working hard and we do deserve to be there as much as the guys.
“We hear the word ‘diversity,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘diversity’ all the time, and that’s just plugging people in. This is about diversity, equality and inclusion. That goes a step further. It’s not just plugging people in. It’s giving people equal opportunity to be in those places.”
Brunson has been calling football games for a quarter century, and reaching the pro ranks was never a stated goal for her. Mitchell-Ross was encouraged to try officiating by a workout partner, which she mistakenly though was a suggestion to try basketball, not football. Chaka has been officiating since 2007 and has worked a number of NFL preseason games.
DeLorenzo and Nelson took part in the NFL’s Officiating Development Program last year. Someone heard Sauer-Cook calling out penalties from the stands at a high school game and asked her to give officiating a shot.
“Dean has always been a great advocate for not only getting diversity on the football field, but also getting the best officials,” Sauer-Cook said. “He’s not just going to hire a woman just because she’s a woman or an African-American guy just because he’s African-American.
“He always tries to get the right officials. I appreciate that about him. I’ve always respected him for that. I really have not experienced any negativity about being openly gay or a female. I really haven’t. I’ve been really fortunate.”
Not that there haven’t been challenges along the way. Comments tinged by race, gender and/or other personal traits are a reality for many.
Many of them hurt. They fight through it to do a job they love.
“I can’t say things have always gone relatively smoothly,” Mitchell-Ross said. “I don’t think I’ve had things extremely rough or tough. You are treated differently by fans coming up at all levels, and by coaches and players alike. You just learn to deal with that.
“All of officiating is having a tough skin and being able to deal with things people say, whether they’re true or not. It’s always assumed that I have a crew of seven other guys that have played football before. Maybe or maybe not. You run into things like people thinking you don’t know the rules. I always tell people that I mentor don’t take anything personally. They don’t know you. Just roll with the punches.”
As far as their on-field interactions in the XFL, it’s gone the way they hoped it would. Any superficial differences don’t come into play if everyone is doing their jobs.
“You have a good relationship with players if they respect you, if they know what you’re going to tolerate and what you’re not going to tolerate, what you bring to the game and what they need to bring to the game,” said Brunson, the first female official to work a full SEC game. “Don’t bring no B.S. because we want clean games. We don’t want it to get out of hand. Sometimes it does, but then we quickly get it back.”
Sometimes a feminine voice, albeit a stern one, can come in handy when tempers flare and things start to get out of control.
“They snap to attention pretty quickly when they hear that momma’s voice,” Sauer-Cook said with a laugh.
Otherwise, being a woman in what’s traditionally been a man’s game is immaterial in many ways.
“Hopefully, nobody notices that I am a female,” Sauer-Cook said. “I wear a ponytail and have black nail polish on, but other than that I just want to be known as a really good official.”
Transparency within the officiating process in the XFL has been a welcome innovation. Fans tuning in on TV are taken inside the replay booth to witness how decisions are made. Chatter between referees via their earpiece microphones is also available to broadcast.
The peek inside helps show that refs are human, and not all calls are cut and dried.
“We know we have eyes and ears on us at all times now, as opposed to other leagues you’re pretty much hidden,” Chaka said. “If you’re not mic-ed up and things aren’t heard, you might be allowed to make a few more mistakes. It’s important when we have plays with multiple flags or difficult situations that people see how we adjudicate it correctly.”
It should be noted the football officiating isn’t anyone’s fulltime livelihood. These women work in education, in the corporate world, raise families and more.
Being on the field can mean so much off. Chaka is a teacher at a high school for at-risk youth in Virginia Beach, Va. Every time she slips into her black-and-white uniform and drapes a whistle around her neck, there’s an opportunity to send a message to her “children” back home.
“I work like I work for them,” she said. “I don’t work for myself. My accolades are pretty much for them to enjoy. They enjoy the fact that they can turn on the TV this weekend and can watch their teacher.
“Everything I do is for the pride of them. I don’t have my own children, but I do have 300 children by me being a teacher. Everything I do is pretty much a representation of girls that look just like me.”
Sauer-Cook has been recognized as the first openly gay official in a major pro football league.
“I am doing my job and doing the best that I can do for my job, but I do understand the importance of raising the awareness for young girls and the LGBTQ community, and understanding that you can get out on the field and officiate,” she said. “There are no boundaries. If you want to be an official, be it. If you want to play football and be a kicker or a quarterback or whatever, do it.
“Anybody can do it. I get out on the field and I work the best game that I can just like the guys do. It’s so exciting for women to be a part of this awesome sport that we’ve always loved, and now it is finally open and available for all of us.”
Blandino said he hopes the XFL’s female officials can create an interest in young women and hopefully a desire to pursue a career in officiating. Building a pipeline at the lower levels of football is key in developing quality officials to trickle up throughout the sport.
The XFL is trying to do its part.
“Our group of female officials brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in officiating, but also a different perspective that will have a positive impact on not just their fellow officials, but the game itself,” Blandino said. “This group will further normalize female officials at all levels to the point where it is no longer a story.”
Until then, for female officials such as Mitchell-Ross, they’re following what was once an unlikely path forged by the likes of as Annice Canady, Sarah Thomas, Valenti and others.
“I feel sense a responsibility to them for being trailblazers, and do always do my best and give my best on and off the field,” Mitchell-Ross said. “I want to make sure I’m not adding water to that trail, but adding fire.”