LANSING, Mich. – Stefanie Jones was initially skeptical.
When her father Tony Joostberns first mentioned to her the idea of making some extra money by officiating football games, Jones remembers the thoughts that went through her head.
“I was kind of like, ‘Is that a thing?,'” Jones said. “Do girls ref football?”
Joostberns pleaded to her why not and mentioned all the men who ref the sport and never played.
And that conversation more than a decade ago set things in motion.
Jones and her younger sister Amy Joostberns are part of a small group of females working as football officials. The Michigan High School Athletic Association said it has 14 females registered as officials out of 2,356 registered football refs.
NFL official Sarah Thomas has been viewed as a trailblazer in the profession for women and made the rise from officiating high school games in Mississippi. Thomas became the first woman to officiate a NCAA game in 2007 and then the first full-time female NFL official in 2015.
And Jones, who is in her third season doing games as a regular member of a crew in the Lansing area, has been inspired by seeing other women also working as football officials.
“It’s super awesome,” said Jones, a 2004 Maple Valley graduate. “It’s very exciting to see women (on the field). You watch a MAC game and you see a woman as the white hat now. Those types of things make it feel like (it is possible) if I wanted to move up to the next level, which me and my family are still trying to figure out if that’s something I desire to do.
“It actually feels like I can picture it now whereas before when I first started, I didn’t know of any other women doing that. My dad didn’t know of any other women doing that and I was just modeling after what all the guys did.”
Now she’s doing things that other women are also succeeding at. And Jones is glad to be joined by a familiar face in younger sister Amy Joostberns, who fills in as a football official when needed.
“It’s amazing to get rid of the stigma around it that we’re breaking down that wall,” Amy Joostberns said. “There are a lot of people that think, well you didn’t play football. Well right, but that really doesn’t have anything to do with it. I learned football through learning the rules, through officiating and that’s a unique perspective to have.”
Jones’ path to officiating started in her days playing sports at Maple Valley.
Ironically, she remembers sometimes being upset with calls made by refs while she was on the basketball court or playing other sports.
“I think my dad really encouraged it because I sometimes could be a whiner myself at the officials,” Jones said. “I think he wanted to show me that it’s not as easy as it looks. He said, ‘You need to give it a shot if you want to whine about it.’ I quickly stopped doing that.”
Tony Joostberns has spent more than 30 years as an official and served as the mentor when Jones registered to be an official as a high school junior through the MHSAA’s legacy program.
And then he eventually convinced Jones to give football officiating a shot as a way to earn money while in college.
“My dad kind of challenged me and said just because no one else has done it before doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t,” Jones said.
Jones, who ran track at Central Michigan, found time on the weekends to return home and work youth football games. She and Amy Joostberns would do games with their father and learn the ropes of officiating the sport.
Jones remembers picking the brains of her father during rides to and from games and between contests as she examined the theories of officiating. She believes that was beneficial in helping her get started working football.
One of the things Jones finds most exciting about the profession is the theories of officiating. And she credits the training she’s received through the Capital Area Officials Association for helping her to become even more comfortable in her role on the field.
The biggest question Jones and her sister encounter as one of the state’s few female football officials is how they got started.
“I just have to point and say that my dad is the white hat so It’s kind of just in our nature,” Jones said.
Besides officiating being a family thing, Amy Joostberns said the atmosphere surrounding football games is enjoyable.
“Football was another way to be involved – especially after high school and college,” said Joostberns, who played basketball at Ferris State. “It’s a way to stay involved with that atmosphere of high school athletics.”
Other than the typical questions, Jones and Joostberns have found people to be accepting while working football games.
And Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern thought Jones did well when she was the side judge for one of the Cougars’ early-season contests.
“I thought she did a really good job,” said Ahern, who noted Jones was only the second female official he’s had work one of his team’s games since he started coaching in 1972.
“I think we may see more officials that are females. As long as they know what they are doing, that’s all that matters.”