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Two female officials part of crew set to referee CIAA football title game

Nation’s first African-American conference sends strong message of inclusion — especially for football

Sharlanda Demingo had to make a call — and a tough one at that.

Her son, Amadious, demanded that she quit one of her jobs so he could see more of her at home.

“He was in middle school and playing basketball,” Demingo recalled of the conversation with her then-12-year-old. “He was in the band, and I would miss his games sometimes because I was always out, either at a basketball game or at a football game, so I couldn’t go to his marching band events.”

When Amadious’ grades started to suffer, things got real. “It seemed like he started struggling in school, too, so I had to pay attention to that.”

At the time, Demingo had been pursuing her passion as a referee, in basketball and football. As much as she knew she had to put her time in, success there couldn’t come at the expense of family. “So I decided to pursue football primarily and if I wanted to do basketball, I’d do some rec games on the side but not continue to pursue basketball.”

It was the best call she could have made — there’s been zero second-guessing.

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Demingo developed a love for basketball after joining the Air Force in 2002. After completing basic training in Lackland, Texas, her first duty station stop took her to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, where she started officiating basketball, following in her father’s footsteps. “Growing up as a little girl, my dad used to officiate basketball, so I used to go to the games with him,” said Demingo, who continued refereeing after her tour ended in Germany and her second stop — in Hurlburt Field, Florida — began.

By 2006, when she got out of the military and moved to Atlanta, Demingo had added football to her repertoire — and now she will be part of the five-person officiating crew poised to manage the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) football championship game, between Fayetteville State and Bowie State, Saturday in Salem, Virginia.

Bowie State enters the game 8-2 overall, 8-1 against Division II competition and 6-1 against CIAA opponents. It is led by quarterback Amir Hall, the leading passer in Division II who was the 2017 Black College Player of the Year. It’s Bowie State’s third appearance in the championship game in five seasons.

Fayetteville State enters the title game with a 6-2 record, 6-1 against Division II competition and 5-1 against CIAA foes. The Broncos had two games canceled because of Hurricane Florence. But that didn’t stop them in the conference’s Southern Division, and they claimed its championship spot in Week 9 with a win over Livingstone and Shaw University’s win over Winston-Salem State.

For the CIAA, having female officials covering football as well as other sports in the conference is vitally important — something its commissioner, Jacqie McWilliams, has championed from the beginning.

“Our teams, sports fans, students and the overall community benefit from having balanced, diverse and inclusive teams officiating all of our sports,” McWilliams explained. “It’s important to me the CIAA lead by example.”

Being thought leaders in this space isn’t new territory for the CIAA, and Saturday’s game, though worthy of the history books, now ranks second in a series of firsts for the conference. The Oct. 27 game between Winston-Salem State and Shaw in Durham, North Carolina, featured the CIAA’s first all-female team of officials to referee a televised game. The group, which included Demingo, Ruth Onyekwelu, Christina Thurman, Joysha Gay and Bobbie Torain, previously officiated together on Sept. 29, and each of them had separately officiated games throughout the CIAA’s 10-game season.

Demingo, 35, knows that getting to this point took bravery and appreciates the conference for setting a precedent for other leagues to follow. “[Commissioner McWilliams] is very supportive of the football officiating initiative since day one,” said Demingo, who works for the Department of Agriculture as an IT specialist. “She has always come to our [refereeing] clinics, and if she couldn’t make it because of a meeting, she’d send somebody from her staff. She’s very active with the officials, and if we needed anything as far as pay raises, she was very active on trying to get that for us. She’s been very good to us.”

Referees have it hard. Fans take liberties, and coaches often show them little to zero respect — and that’s how men get treated. When you’re a woman, treatment is clouded with stereotypes and sexism. “I had to let it go of any thoughts of being intimidated,” Demingo admitted, “because there’s nothing I can do to change a person. I can show them better than I can tell them. I can show them to trust me and show them that, hey, I do know what I’m doing. I’d rather let my actions speak by officiating.”

“I mean, some coaches have never seen a female referee before, so their very first question is, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ ”

While Demingo concedes that she never gets any disrespect from players — “the players say, ‘Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am, a lot” — some older coaches, particularly in football, have had a tough time with the optics of a female referee. “I mean, some coaches have never seen a female referee before, so their very first question is, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ They’ll ask me that before they’ll ask that of a male referee. Or, ‘You don’t know the game because you didn’t play.’ But just because I didn’t play the game doesn’t mean I can’t do the job. I studied the game, and I continue to study the game and take it as seriously as they do.”

Onyekwelu, who will be alongside Demingo on Saturday, totally gets it.

A product of Nigerian parents who migrated to America before she was born, Onyekwelu grew up in a household that preached “no limits.” A multisport athlete growing up, Onyekwelu said it makes complete sense to have women referee games at the highest level — if for no other reason than for a growing and changing fan base. “It’s important to have women on the field due to the growth and the diversity of the fan base,” said Onyekwelu, who is an elementary school health and physical education teacher. “Officiating should be a representation of the progress we have in the game of football.”

Now 15 years old and a sophomore baseball player at Tucker High School in Atlanta, Demingo’s son has become a partner in his mom’s pursuit of refereeing excellence, often tagging along to her games and watching her work from the stands.

“He’s been with me since day one,” the doting mom said of Amadious. “He’d sit up in the stands and meet so many different people. There are so many motherly women in the stands with their kids out there who would just go sit next to him and make sure he was all right, and he’ll say, ‘Oh, my mom’s on the football field.’ ”

Do Demingo and Onyekwelu long for the day when an all-female team of referees isn’t big news? No, Demingo said — because the continued dialogue will bring awareness and open doors for others who share their passion for calling the shots.

“Of course, I want to go all the way to the top,” said Demingo, who aspires to work in the NFL and in bigger conferences, like the Southeastern Conference. “That’s the ultimate goal, and I don’t think we’re far away from female referees consistently working at that level.”

There she goes again — calling it like she sees it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the entire crew of the CIAA title game would be all women.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.