Female ref breaking down walls in NRV

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Photo Kymn Davidson-Hamley
VT grad student Mia Stewart (in the background) is the only female Virginia High School League football official in Southwest Virginia.

By Marty Gordon
NRVsports@ourvalley.org

On Friday nights, the overwhelming majority of high school football referees are men—96 percent to be exact nationwide. Those numbers are similar here in Southwest Virginia, but Virginia Tech graduate student Mia Stewart is tearing down those barriers and making a name for herself.  She is the only female wearing the black and white stripes here in our area.

Stewart loves officiating and shrugs off any concern about being the only female on the field. “For the most part, I’ve been received well. The rest of the board members and my crews are supportive of me as a football official,” she said.

The number of female officials in football seems to be the lowest of the major high school sports. Fourteen percent of all high school basketball referees are females, and 28 percent of baseball/softball umpires are female, according to the latest statistics from the National High School Athletics Association.

Sarah Thomas became the National Football League’s first female official in 2015, the same year Stewart began officiating flag football for intramural sports at Cornell University.

The first season Stewart officiated tackle football was in 2017 for the Finger Lakes Football Officials Association in upstate New York.

“I started officiating intramural sports because I wanted an on-campus job with flexible hours that kept me active,” she said. After officiating intramural sports for a little over a year and really enjoying it, I made the transition to tackle football so I would have a way to keep officiating after I graduated.”

Her mom had officiated high school soccer for a few years when Stewart was younger, so she had both her mother and Thomas to look up to.

“Of course, I look up to Sarah Thomas, the first female NFL official, but I have had a lot of strong, female mentors in my life who continue to do great things and support me as well,” Stewart said.

She is originally from Montana and received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell. She currently is working on a master’s in construction engineering and management at Virginia Tech.

The “lone wolf” of female referees plans to continue officiating after graduation.

In addition to football, she officiates high school basketball and is one of the graduate assistants for intramural sports at VT, which means she is in charge of training student officials for a variety of team sports.