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Michigan Matters: Boxing and NFL Officiating

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Senior Producer/Host Carol Cain talks with Claressa Shields about being arguably the best female boxer in the world as she wins world titles and is changing the industry for women. Then Sarah Thomas, the first woman to official in the NFL, discusses her career and making it to the top as she just officiated recent Super Bowl.

Video Transcript

CAROL CAIN: Good morning. March is Women's History Month, which many recognize, but many others also associate it with March Madness. And the connection of women and sports is far from mutually exclusive.

In recent months, we've seen women take major roles in some of the most prestigious jobs in baseball, NFL, and others. Today, we're going to talk with two pioneers. Sarah Thomas, the first female to have worked in the NFL; and also Flint's Claressa Shields, the two-time Olympic gold medal winner for boxing who has three world titles. It's the power of women in sports today on "Michigan Matters."

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- From CBS 62, this is "Michigan Matters" with Carol Cain.

"Michigan Matters" is brought to you in part by PNC Bank.

CAROL CAIN: She's the undisputed champion and world title holder in the junior welterweight division, who has held world titles in super welterweight and middleweight divisions. She's defeated in 11 professional fights. And oh, yeah she has two-- not one, but two-- gold medals for boxing. She's Claressa Shields, the pride of Flint, dominating the world of boxing. Good morning. Welcome to the show.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Good morning. Thank you.

CAROL CAIN: So I also want to give you a shoutout for your birthday. You had a big birthday. You turned, I think, 26 this week.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: 26.

CAROL CAIN: How did you celebrate?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: My friends had a surprise dinner. I just went to the surprise dinner. There's not really much to do with COVID.

CAROL CAIN: Yeah, this is true. COVID's changed so much, including boxing. We'll talk about all that right now.

But you also have that glow of victory going on right now. You beat Canada's Marie-Eve Dicaire in the junior middleweight title in a unification bout. You're the first boxer in four-belt era to become an undisputed champion in two weight classes. Congratulations again. How does that feel?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: It's really one of those feats that hasn't been done in history, and I'm happy that I'm the first one to do it. And in the three-belt era, it was one boxer who did it, and that was Evander Holyfield. So to be up and have my name with Evander Holyfield and just be the first person in the four-belt era means a lot. It shows just how great I am, which I already knew.

CAROL CAIN: You are dominating here. And in fact, when you look at the boxers in the men's boxing world through history, who do you look up to? Who do you like to compare yourself to?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali.

CAROL CAIN: Dominating, no doubt about it. When you've had success-- and you've had tremendous success-- how do you keep the momentum going, that eye of the tiger, if you will?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Well, for me, I'm never satisfied. Like, I think I was actually upset over my victory last week. Like, I was happy that I won, of course, but I really wanted to get the knockout. I would really like for boxing to be three minutes because it would make it easier. And, you know, we can have the same statistics as the men, but it's really hard to knock out women fighters, especially who are on a elite level in just two minutes, you know.

And I trained hard throughout camp. So for me, it's like, I was happy with the victory, and I made history. But I'm right back in the gym, right back training, getting ready for my next match.

CAROL CAIN: And again, when you were growing up and getting in boxing-- we're gonna talk about your childhood coming up here-- but there weren't that many women boxing. I know Laila Ali was one. And she has even mentioned in some recent interviews in the past several months or years about possibly wanting to get in the ring with you. Is that a fight you'd welcome?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I already told Laila Ali that I would fight her, but she wasn't serious about coming out of retirement and having a fight with me. I think she just kind of got a little bit jealous of all the attention that was given to women's boxing. She's Muhammad Ali daughter and probably feel like it should be her.

But I am the one who put in the hard work. I am the one with the two-time Olympic gold medals, two-time undisputed championship. And it's just a different era. So I don't really pay her any mind.

You know, if she's serious about it, I'm 26. I won't be retiring till I'm about 34, 35. So she has plenty of time to make her mind up.

But if she doesn't, I'll just continue to fight other girls because not only am I boxing, but I'm also doing MMA. And I'm fighting for the PFL, Professional Fighters [AUDIO OUT].

CAROL CAIN: And in fact, the only loss you have in your entire career was as an amateur to Savannah Marshall, who is a WBL middleweight belt holder. Would you consider getting in the ring with her and fighting her again? And I know, to do so, you'd have to go up in weight, right?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: So just to correct you for something, like, I fought her in the amateurs. So when you say "fight her again," I've never fought her in the pros. And that fight was when I was 17. And I just turned--

CAROL CAIN: You were amateur.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, I just turned 26 yesterday. So I don't give her too much, you know, credit on, just to say, oh, you beat me, you know, what is it, nine years ago, and you are still a good fighter. Like, me and her have fought in four major tournaments together, and she never won none of them. I was the one who came out with the gold medal, even in the amateur world championships and the Olympics.

So respect to Savannah Marshall, but the WBL belt that she holds is one of my belts at 160 that I held for the undisputed championship. And she could have fought me for all the belts at 160, but she decided, because I was going for history at 154, that they wanted to [? beg ?] the WBL for me to vacate the belt.

So Savannah Marshall is soft. So let's not even put her in the same sentence as me, because she ain't accomplish not even 10% of what I've accomplished in my career.

CAROL CAIN: And you mentioned, real quickly, that you're getting set to make the transition to the mixed martial arts stage, which is a little bit different here. And I think you're looking to do something maybe by June. How difficult a transition will that be?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Not a difficult transition. I'm taking my time. I'm in the gym. I was just doing MMA training this morning. Yeah, just doing some kicks and some punches and some ground and pound, just getting my body prepared for it.

It's more of a mental thing than anything. It's a mental thing, having to put on that switch to where, you know, in boxing, you use your left and your right hand, but now in MMA, you have left hand, right hand, left knee, right knee, kicks from all over, high kicks, low kicks.

So it's a bit more to have to, you know, worry about. But I've been taking all the discipline seriously in [INAUDIBLE], jiu-jitsu, wrestling, muay thai, and still, you know, adding it all to my boxing.

CAROL CAIN: And we've got a lot more to talk about with world champion Claressa Shields. Keep it right here. We're back with more "Michigan Matters."

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And welcome back to "Michigan Matters." We're talking with Claressa Shields, who is a world champion boxer from Flint. And Claressa, you just won a fight last weekend against the boxer. And it was a pay-per-view event that was held at the Dort Financial Center in Flint. It was the first all-female headlined pay-per-view event and run near International's Women's Day.

I know your promoter, [? Dmitry ?] [? Salita, ?] has talked about the importance of women in boxing. Do you think women get enough respect and credit in boxing right now?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I think I get enough respect and credit in boxing, but not the women overall in boxing, no. And I think that no woman boxer has been paid equally to the men boxers. So there is unequal pay, unequal opportunity, and unequal promotion, and also unequal pay.

So we have a lot of work to do, and I have a lot of work to do involved in that. But I feel like March 5, the pay-per-view fight on Fight TV, which you can still go and order in the next 30 days, still, I think it was very important for women's boxing to have an all-female card to show our talents, to show that we actually have people tuning into the fight, and just [INAUDIBLE], let's see what our numbers are and build off of there. But I think it was a great showcase of women's boxing skills.

CAROL CAIN: You are trailblazing in women's sports and in life in general in so many different ways. You had what can only be described as a tough upbringing in Flint. Your mom had issues. Your dad ended up in jail. And you could have gone another route and ended up in trouble. Instead, you made it through, and on the world stage at this point. What led you through?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I'll honestly say that my parents' mistakes was the reason why I knew what not to do. My mom abused alcohol, and me and her had a conversation just about what alcohol does to you. So I've never really been a big drinker.

And just for my dad, we had a conversation about how he ended up in prison. It wasn't jail. It was prison. So just having bad parents, sometimes, or just parents who are not all the way together, isn't always a bad thing. Like, they were able to show me what not to do by actually doing it and be, like, a living example.

Like, both my mom has been clean of alcohol for the past, I don't know, five, six years now. And my dad's been out of prison for a very long time. So I have a great relationship with my parents. And I don't know what kind of person I would be without them. It definitely made me a little bit more tougher having to deal with those things growing up. But if I hadn't had to deal with it, I probably wouldn't be as mentally strong as I am.

CAROL CAIN: I know-- I believe your dad was a boxer. And when you were about 11 or so, he took you to the Berston Field House, renowned in Flint. And you were so good that even folks like Jason Crutchfield, who was a trainer there, said, you are better than all the boys. What is it about boxing that lured you in to want to be spending your time on it?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I've always kind of been a fighter. You know, like, I think my dad got out of prison when I was nine. But my dad didn't really, like-- you know, you got to learn your kids.

I was super quiet. I never got kicked out of school. But I had gotten into plenty of fights outside of school or, you know, on the bus, and stuff like that. And I just never spoke about them. But I always been kind of having to deal with my anger.

And when I had started boxing, it just seemed like it was something that loved me back. I enjoyed doing it. I got better. And it kind of, like, was just a passion of mine to fight.

So it's a good thing I had boxing so I could fight and not, you know, fight and I'd have to go to jail or nothing. I can fight inside the ring, and, you know, sweat, work off of steam and that. It made me less angry as a person. So it just seemed like boxing kind of chose me. I didn't choose it.

CAROL CAIN: You also are giving back to the community in Flint. You help inspire other little girls, little boys, and others to rise above challenges you've faced. And how important is it to you to give back to your community of Flint?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yeah, I give back in a few different ways by just telling my story and meeting up with the kids. I host youth boxing programs for the kids and also adults. I have water drives, coat drives, turkey drives. I just have this saying that just because your parents don't have it doesn't mean that the kids shouldn't have it, you know.

So if I can help in any kind of way, I do, you know. I always have help from the mayor, Mayor Neeley.

The Sweet Leaf is, like, a legal weed company, but it's ran by Delano Burton, and he has always put forth a lot of money to help, you know, give out the coats, give out the water, letting us use his facility to give out turkey, stuffing, yams, and mac and cheese for Thanksgiving.

And it just makes me feel good to be able to do that. But I think the biggest thing I do is just share my story. And when I fight, I wear my hair blue so everybody knows that the water crisis is still ongoing and that Flint still needs help.

CAROL CAIN: Well, and in fact, you just bought a home in Flint yourself, the first person in your family to buy a home, I understand. And I'm sure that there's going to be better days ahead for Flint, hopefully.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Yes, agreed.

CAROL CAIN: All right, then. Well, Claressa, thank you so much for joining us again. Happy birthday. Congratulations on all the wins you have, and I know there's more to see. We'll be watching your career because no doubt there'll be more victories ahead. Thanks again for joining us.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Thank you.

CAROL CAIN: Thank you. And keep it right here. We're back with more "Michigan Matters."

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And welcome back to "Michigan Matters." We're now joined by Sarah Thomas, the first female official in the NFL, who just made history as she officiated the Super Bowl. Good morning, and welcome to the show.

SARAH THOMAS: Oh, thank you, Carol. Good morning to you and everyone in Michigan.

CAROL CAIN: Well, as viewers know, many viewers of the show know that my significant other is involved in the NFL, with the Vikings and such. And so I spend a lot of time at football games and sometimes on sidelines, and I had been admiring your work for years. So it's just great to get a chance to talk with you.

SARAH THOMAS: It's my pleasure, Carol.

CAROL CAIN: So I have to ask you, you have been officiating, I read from your bio, since '96 in peewee, college, NFL. But when you found out you were gonna be officiating in the Super Bowl, what went through your mind?

SARAH THOMAS: I just-- I was, like, just in awe. I knew that the crew that I worked with during my six seasons, Shawn Hochuli's crew, they're an amazing group of guys. And you could just sense just when you're having a good year. And, of course, there were mishaps, but those are the ones you grow from.

But when I got the call from supervisor Wayne [? Mackie, ?] we knew the calls were going out that day. But when he called me, it was a little bit after 10:00. I had just left working out. And I answered, and Wayne kind of was talking to me about a prior game and some plays in a game. And I said, yes, sir, and so I thought maybe we were just going over those things. And then he said, but the reason I'm calling you is because you're gonna nail them when you are the down judge at Super Bowl 55 in Tampa, Florida.

I had to pull over on the side of the road to make sure I didn't lose cell service. And then I got teary-eyed, and then I screamed like a girl. It was just one of those moments.

And when I hung up with him, I FaceTimed my parents and my kids. And then I had to get ready to go to work in two and 1/2 weeks.

CAROL CAIN: Well, no pressure. Only, I think, something like 100 million people watched that game, I think. After Tom Brady and how he was going to do, people were watching to see how you would do. What was that experience like?

SARAH THOMAS: Carol, the great thing is, in the NFL, they do it right. They truly do. You're not eligible to work a Super Bowl until after your fifth season. And the training that they give us-- the crew I, like I said, was able to work with just elevated my game.

And we treat every Sunday in the NFL like it is a Super Bowl. So I don't want to downplay the fact that it is the Super Bowl. But from our mentality, as officials, it was just another game, and we were all prepared for it.

It was an elite crew headed up by Carl Cheffers, just his leadership, and he's been there, and his experience. It just-- it was another game.

CAROL CAIN: Your kids were there, I believe. You have three children. Were they all there at the game, and did that put pressure on you, too?

SARAH THOMAS: No, it didn't put pressure on me. They were there. Matter of fact, as a mom, it just kind of gave me that sense of peace. They're here. They're safe.

And I went directly to where they were sitting in that end zone. And I whistle really loud, Carol, with my fingers. And so I whistled, and my daughter turned around.

The timing was just perfect. They were walking into the stadium as I was going to that spot on the end zone. And when I whistled, my daughter later told me, she said, mom, I heard you whistle and thought, there's no way this is my mom because she's working the Super Bowl.

And they all turned around. I blew them the kisses. They pointed, I pointed at them, and then I was just, like, hey, it's go time.

CAROL CAIN: There you go. So did you always want to be an official, a referee in football? I mean, was that something you started out wanting to do?

SARAH THOMAS: Absolutely not, Carol. When I was an athlete, I hated the officials. And truth be told, they hated me. No, I didn't.

By getting kicked out of a men's basketball league after being in it for three years-- and the reason I got kicked out, I was a girl-- and I was like, are y'all just now realizing I'm a female?

But for the first time in my life, at 23, I was sportsless. I didn't have anything that I was involved in. And by way of a phone call with my brother, I fell into officiating and fell in love with it.

CAROL CAIN: In fact, you often were the only girl on the boy-- whether it's basketball or softball or whatever, you were the only girl on a lot of these teams, weren't you?

SARAH THOMAS: Yeah. So in fifth grade, I was the only girl that was in the league, the whole Pascagoula City League. There was one other girl, [INAUDIBLE], that came in, I believe, the next season, sixth-grade season.

But yeah, me being the only girl-- I was the only girl in my family, an older brother and a younger brother. I tell everybody I gave my mom and dad a double whammy, middle-child syndrome and the only girl. So it just wasn't uncommon for me to tag along with my brothers and play. And as long as I could hold my own, they didn't mind it.

CAROL CAIN: Do you think having that experience is making you a better official and be able to officiate men, where everybody on the field you're officiating, they're all men?

SARAH THOMAS: Yeah, I just-- I don't-- I see them as athletes. They're phenomenal. And I know, going back to my former playing years, I believe that that helped establish where I am, just mental toughness, extra effort, constructive criticism, being booed, being cheered, being criticized by fans. And the guys on the field, if they get passionate about something, they express it. But it's a profession.

CAROL CAIN: And it should be noticed, you were a star athlete in high school as well, and you got a scholarship-- University of Mobile. And again, I'm assuming that all prepared you for this, this experience.

SARAH THOMAS: It absolutely did. But not only that, Carol, yes, we all that have been athletes can carry it on into our careers, whatever it is. But with the world of officiating, if it hadn't been for the guys-- there wasn't anyone that looked like me, and I didn't know that there weren't any women that were not involved in officiating football.

But if it weren't for the guys that treated me as an official-- they didn't use delicate gloves because I was a female. They were honest with me. And if it hadn't been for the honesty and the men that have walked this journey already respecting me and saying, hey, she is doing this for the same reasons we are, then I wouldn't be where I am. And having that respect and just their guidance and their grit and them being honest with me is why I have been in the league for six years, going into my seventh.

CAROL CAIN: And we're gonna take a break. We'll be back with a lot more with Sarah Thomas right after this.

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And welcome back to "Michigan Matters." We're now continuing our conversation with Sarah Thomas, who many of you saw-- if you watched the Super Bowl, you saw Sarah in action officiating the game, and the first woman to ever do so.

And Sarah, what's the most difficult part of refereeing the NFL? Is it the speed of the players, keeping up? Or what's the most difficult part?

SARAH THOMAS: I guess, you know, it's just-- the players, yes. They're the best athletes, I'd say, in the world. But our training and to be able to keep up with them-- we know we can't keep up with them, but just our training.

And I'm telling you, when you come from college to the pros, yeah, you have to make that adjustment as far as the speed, and of course, the learning curve of all the rules and the complexity of the rules. But as you officiate in this league, it just kind of slows down because the players are equally yoked. The defender and the receiver are just as quick and athletic.

The D-line, the offensive line, I mean, it's amazing how agile these guys are. But because they're, like, on the same level playing, it just kind of slows down. I'm not a physics major or anything like that, but yeah, it just seems to slow down, and the game comes to you.

CAROL CAIN: And you are tough, which everybody saw that back in December of 2016. Again, you were officiating. Halftime, or during that-- partway into the game with the Vikings and Packers on the sidelines, there was a collision. You broke your wrist. They took you back to make sure you didn't have a concussion. You proceeded to get back in the game and keep working. I mean, if that isn't tough, I don't know what is.

SARAH THOMAS: I would say the funniest thing is, Carol, they didn't check me for a concussion. Nobody even asked me if I had a headache. And I just knew I had to get back out there. But there was a player on the treatment table sitting next to me. When I said, I'm going back in this game, he said, you are one bad-- you know.

And the NFL security was like, are you serious? I said, yep, get your running shoes on. I'm going back in that game because that's where I belong. I'm able to work. I just have a broken wrist.

The joke with that all is, Carol, it was Christmas Eve, and Kyle Rudolph ran over me. And so my son said, hey, Mom, you do know you got run over by Rudolph on Christmas Eve. So make a big funny out of it.

CAROL CAIN: Speaking of that, you have three kids. And I know, with the pandemic, this has been-- it's just been a very, very different time for everybody. But I know one of the things that's been so important to you is to continue to give back and help inspire other young girls and boys and people to try to reach their goals. And talk a little bit about what kinds of things you're doing.

SARAH THOMAS: Yeah, so I just-- I'm able to speak, and I speak to any age group. Some of the toughest are your younger generations, to keep them engaged, but just never giving up on themselves.

And right now, I just really am-- with my own two boys, they are being recruited, if you will. They're baseball players. And I just tell them, yes, I want you to have goals in life, and obtainable goals. But don't get too far ahead of yourself. You be the best ballplayer every time you're able to work, and everything else will take care of itself.

CAROL CAIN: And how has it been with the pandemic? The NFL, like all pro sports, college sports, has been impacted. How has that gone this year?

SARAH THOMAS: I'm telling you it was a change, especially from the officiating standpoint. We weren't able to get together with the crew before the game and do our pregame. And, you know, chemistry is so important off the field because it bleeds on to the field.

Not having the fans in the stands-- we're so laser focused out there, I didn't even realize the fans weren't there my first game in Atlanta this past season until I walked into the tunnel. I went, well, this is different. They're not yelling at us or booing. But the fans bring such an electrifying element to it.

But the NFL is the NFL for the reason of how they managed to do what they do and pull this off. I mean, the medical staff, just the leadership that-- from Goodell all the way down-- is just impeccable in what they do, and we were able to have a season-- a little different, and I'm hoping that this coming year, we'll be able to have some training camps and preseason and fans in the stands.

CAROL CAIN: I'm imagining, since this is the offseason, you're spending your time doing a little more with that, spending time with your kids.

SARAH THOMAS: I am. So when I finish with all of you today, I'm going to be heading over to Meridian. My son has a baseball game today. He's got a doubleheader, and his brother played this week. So yeah, it's just the juggling act of being a mom and kids, but I love it. I love being busy.

CAROL CAIN: You mentioned at the start that when you were a player that you were often taking issue with the officials and saying things to them. When people are saying things to you, which is the natural course. You watch it on television, whether they're in person, and they're swearing at the officials. How do you take that, that criticism?

SARAH THOMAS: I go back to when I was a player. I mean, I hated the officials. They hated me. But they're passionate, and they're gonna express it how they will. And to be honest with you, they never cross a line. They're professionals. But I give them the opportunity to be passionate about it.

And it was really funny. There was one time I did something, and they were like, you got it wrong, Sarah. Look at the jumbotron. And then they replayed it. And of course, I didn't look. And they played it, and they went, you got it right, Sarah. That's a good time, you know.

So you just-- you address them. You don't ignore them, because the first form of rejection is ignoring someone. So I'll address it.

CAROL CAIN: That'll have to be the last word. I want to thank you so much. Congratulations on a remarkable career.

I want to thank you at home for tuning in. Enjoy the rest of your day. We'll see you next Sunday for more "Michigan Matters."

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