Revolution Interrupted: Why Has the NBA's Effort to Hire Female Refs Stalled?

Britni de La CretazFeatured Columnist IApril 2, 2018

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 02: Referee Lauren Holtkamp officiates during the second quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on February 2, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Holtkamp is the third female to ever referee in the NBA full-time. The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Miami Heat 103-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Twenty-one years ago, the NBA broke the gender barrier when it hired Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner, becoming the first major U.S. professional men's league to hire women as full-time officials. But what was once seen as a sign of progress has not ushered in the cultural shift many expected. Today the NBA can count just one woman among its officiating ranks, and she is the only one to be hired full-time since the league hired the first two.

So much for progress.

In fairness, the NBA isn't the only league with a paucity of female referees. "There's not a history of females officiating on the men's side; that has to be built," said Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) and founder of Referee magazine. Major League Baseball has never had a female umpire; nor has the National Hockey League; the National Football League hired its first female referee in 2015. By these metrics, it would seem the NBA is ahead of the game. But it hasn't stayed in front, and it's not clear when it will regain the momentum.

Officiating is a dying industry, no matter the sport. Officials cite poor treatment from athletes and fans and low pay as two of the main reasons for exiting the job, according to Mano. NASO's 2017 National Officiating Survey of 17,487 referees at all levels around the country found that, in 1970, the average age when officials entered the field was 19 or 20. Today, it's 42.

"Younger people aren't coming into this. They're making a different choice," Mano said. "So that stark reality forces us to deal with recruiting people and retaining them once they're here." That recruitment includes more actively seeking out "underrepresented groups" (including women) to enter the field, something approximately 64 percent of officials who responded to the NASO survey felt should be happening.

But is it?

Violet Palmer had worked in women's NCAA Division I college ball for about eight years when she received a phone call from the NBA to invite her to its training program. "I joined the program and did very well," Palmer told B/R during a phone interview. "I learned that all you have to do is be in the top of your class of the training program and if there's a position open in the league, you will get your opportunity. Lo and behold, in 1997 I received my phone call and got my opportunity to referee in the league."

Palmer went on to referee for 18 seasons and is now a referee manager for the league. "I actually crossed over to the dark side," she joked, "because it's almost like I went from being a referee on the floor, and then I end up retiring and now I'm on the management side."

Dee Kantner, who started at the same time as Palmer, was fired after five years for "not making sufficient progress in her own development," according to an NBA statement given to the Associated Press (h/t Los Angeles Times) at the time of her firing. Kantner declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a recent interview with the AARP that her hiring was "groundbreaking," while her firing was "devastating" but "one of the best things" that had ever happened to her. "From that experience, I became a better person, I became a better official, I had a much healthier perspective in life," she said.

Hired in 1997, Violet Palmer went on to officiate in the NBA for 18 seasons.
Hired in 1997, Violet Palmer went on to officiate in the NBA for 18 seasons.Chuck Solomon/Getty Images

One year after the women were hired, the NBA saw its hiring practices come under scrutiny when it lost a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by Sandra Ortiz-Del Valle, another woman who aspired to officiate in the NBA. Both Palmer and Kantner testified at the time that they felt they were hired on merit and that their gender did not hold them back from progressing. The jury disagreed that was the case for Ortiz-Del Valle and found that her gender was the reason she had not landed a job as an NBA referee. Though the NBA argued that Palmer and Kanter were proof the league didn't discriminate, it was ordered to pay $7.85 million in damages to Ortiz-Del Valle.

A lot has changed in the 20 years since the lawsuit. The NBA now has a more streamlined and intentional pipeline for potential referees. They come up through various leagues, often through the NCAA or other college leagues, professional-amateur tournaments or the high school circuit. Referees may be recruited by one of the NBA's three full-time scouts, or they can attend an open tryout for a development camp invite. The top 100 candidates are identified and whittled down through a grassroots camp, mid-level camp and elite camp. The top performers at the elite camp are hired into the G League. From there, they can move on to the WNBA and NBA.

Recently installed to supervise the process is Michelle D. Johnson, the league's new Senior Vice President and Head of Referee Operations, who was brought in last October to oversee officials in all three leagues, as well as focus on refining the scouting, development and evaluation processes. According to numbers provided by the NBA, 16 of the 65 referees (28 percent) in the NBA G League are women, and at the conclusion of the 2017 WNBA season, 12 of the 32 referees (37 percent) were women.

Despite all the progress, just a single woman officiates in the NBA today—Lauren Holtkamp. Now in her fourth season, Holtkamp started on her path to the NBA after playing Division II college ball at Drury University. In graduate school, she began officiating youth games before moving on to the high school level and, later, college. By that time, she was living in Atlanta and working toward a Master of Divinity at Emory University.

"I was working Division II NCAA and some junior college and working high school basketball as well," Holtkamp told B/R in a phone interview. "The way you get hired on the college ranks is you go to these summer camps; they're like evaluation camps. And Dee [Kantner] was a teacher at one of those."

Kantner watched Holtkamp work, and a few weeks later, Holtkamp sat with Kantner at a WNBA game. At the time, Kantner was an NCAA referee and working as the Supervisor of Officials for the WNBA—a position she held for a decade, from 2004 to 2015. "I asked her a lot of questions and just kind of soaked it in," Holtkamp said. From there, Kantner connected her with former official George Toliver, the NBA's Associate Vice President of Referee Performance and Development, who ran a teaching camp, which led to an invitation to the NBA Summer League and then to the D-League (now the G League). Then she moved on to the WNBA and, eventually, the NBA, where she was briefly joined by another female referee, Brenda Pantoja, in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, when both were officially on assignment for the league. (Unlike Holtkamp, Pantoja was not hired. But on Sunday she and Kantner helped officiate the women's Division I national championship game.)

Though Dee Kantner officiated for only five seasons in the NBA, she served as an inspiration for current referee Lauren Holtkamp to work her way into the league years later.
Though Dee Kantner officiated for only five seasons in the NBA, she served as an inspiration for current referee Lauren Holtkamp to work her way into the league years later.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Though everyone interviewed for this story expressed optimism about the pipeline of female officials in the G League and WNBA, neither Johnson nor Holtkamp had an answer when asked why more women haven't progressed from the WNBA to the NBA. Palmer believes the reason we haven't seen more women is simple: "I don't see a woman who is ready right now to make that jump into the NBA because, clearly, if there was a woman ready, they would get a job and have their opportunity."

Still, it's hard to imagine that, in 20 years, only three women have ever been good enough to be given the opportunity. But Johnson explains that, of the thousands of officials on the league's scouting radar, only about 30 will emerge as real prospects for a job in the league each year. That, combined with the fact that there is not much turnover at the other end in terms of people retiring from the NBA's roster of 65 officials, means "it's really competitive for people to go out and show what they can do," Johnson said.

An NBA spokesperson told B/R Monday that over the past 10 years, almost 19 percent of officials who work in its development league end up with a full-time NBA job. For comparison's sake, Minor League Baseball estimates that just 5 percent of officials who work in the minor leagues will end up with a job in Major League Baseball.

Johnson says gender diversity among officials is something the league values; in addition to the number of women coming up in the G League, she points to her hiring as evidence. "You might surmise that me being here may be part of that; you know the NBA is incredibly socially conscious," she said. However, in a press release last year announcing a series of new initiatives to continue "recent efforts to bring additional transparency to the [officiating] program and use advanced technologies to enhance the performance, training, development and recruitment of referees," recruiting more women or increasing gender diversity was not specifically listed as one of the league's goals.

One such initiative is the Referee Development Program. Started in 2016, the three-year program consists of eight participants—four men and four women. To be accepted into the program, prospective referees must apply and go through multiple rounds of interviews. They are considered full-time employees of the NBA and are dedicated to instruction and development, and they may "graduate" the program with a job in the G League sooner than three years, depending on their performance. The goal of the program is to create a more diverse officiating pool and to improve the quality of officiating.

The first woman to lead the U.S. Air Force Academy, Michelle D. Johnson was hired by the NBA last fall to streamline its referee hiring processes.
The first woman to lead the U.S. Air Force Academy, Michelle D. Johnson was hired by the NBA last fall to streamline its referee hiring processes.Brennan Linsley/Associated Press/Associated Press

Mark Denesuk—a spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA), the collective bargaining organization for officials—said he was "not well-versed enough in the career pathways or the development process for NBA officials" to speak to why there weren't more women officiating in the NBA. When asked if the NBRA had ever helped one of the women navigate challenges related to sex or gender discrimination, he said, "Not to my knowledge," but added, "I couldn't speak to that authoritatively."

These discrepancies matter, and not just because of the optics. An NBA spokesperson declined to discuss salaries, but Mano said that "the structures [between the NBA and WNBA] are different and have very different ranges." Based on general information in the NASO offices, Mano says WNBA referee pay depends on years of service and estimates that it ranges from about $800 a game to $1,800 per game. Based on those numbers, over the course of a 34-game season, a WNBA official could hypothetically make about $61,200. Pay in the NBA is salary-based. Working a full schedule involves 82 games; Mano estimates the salary at roughly $120,000 to start, and salaries rise to well above $400,000 for the most senior referees.

"As a general matter, I would expect if League A generates more revenue than League B, League A is going to pay players and coaches and officials more than League B," said Mano, alluding to the revenue difference between the two leagues. In 2016, the New York Times reported that half of WNBA teams lose money, while the NBA's teams generated $5.9 billion in revenue in 2015-16, according to Forbes. But it's not hard to conclude that the salary differential among officials contributes directly to the gender pay gap and, likely, to the marginalization of women off the court.

Palmer thinks just asking the question of why there aren't more women oversimplifies the problem. "You have to realize that the NCAA program right now has really grown and the money is really, really good and you have a lot of women ... who don't want to be NBA referees," she said. "They go, 'Why would I go and have to work a longer season that's grueling when I can stay and referee a league that I love being a part of?' You can't fault women for that."

Palmer, now a referee manager with the NBA, believes some female officials remain in college basketball because the pay is better.
Palmer, now a referee manager with the NBA, believes some female officials remain in college basketball because the pay is better.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Mano echoed that sentiment. "You can work 60 or 70 Division I basketball games and have another career outside of that," he said. "Someone should be able to net out about $2,500-$3,000 per game. You have people who work 40 games per year and some who work 95 per year. And you're only working November through March and maybe a little April, so people make that choice." With those numbers, someone could make as much as $285,000 a year working in the NCAA.

Officiating in the NBA is a hard job, one the league argues takes time, effort—refs run four to five miles per game, according to Johnson—and lots of reps to master. "They need to have leadership skills and communication skills, and so that professional experience takes a few years of experience to really come to fruition, so that might explain why we can't just open the door and have people walk in. They have to be ready to go," explained Johnson.

That's where it is hoped the pipeline the league has spent years developing will come into play. "It takes a certain type of referee, period, but especially for a woman referee," Palmer said. "At this point, I think for our women, they're up and coming. They're getting their training, and when their opportunity presents itself, they will have their chance."

Johnson agrees. "You get the sense that [Holtkamp] won't be alone for long."

(This story has been edited from its original version to reflect new information from the NBA that almost 19 percent of officials working in the G League over the past 10 years have gone on to become full-time NBA officials.)


Britni de la Cretaz's work has been featured in the New York Times, Vogue, the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Vice Sports, espnW, Marie Claire, Buzzfeed, Nylon and many others. In 2017, she received the Nellie Bly Award for Investigative Journalism from the Transformative Culture Project for her reporting on racism in the Boston baseball and sports media scene for DigBoston.