Are There Any Female NBA Referees?

While men have always been involved in women’s sports, it took a long time for women to get involved with men’s sports — beyond a few lucky exceptions. While Becky Hammon broke ground as the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA, female referees are becoming full-time officials at a rapid pace. Now, more female referees than ever call NBA games.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Two-thirds of female referees in league history are working in the NBA today; half of the all-time pool was hired within the last year. The NBA, however, began hiring female officials earlier than other sports leagues. In 1997, Violet Palmer broke into the NBA after working the college ranks for many years. She went on to officiate for 19 years before retiring.

Palmer was 33 years old when she entered the NBA. Some doubted she’d be a long-term NBA employee, and she discussed this with the LA Sentinel. “They didn’t think I would last in the league,” Palmer explained. “I wasn’t supposed to get past three or four years let alone work playoffs or an All-Star game or anything of that nature.”  

Aside from becoming the first female referee in NBA history, Palmer was the first woman to officiate a playoff game — the Indiana Pacers versus New Jersey Nets in a 2006 first-round series. She was also the first openly gay referee in NBA history after coming out in 2014.

Palmer retired in 2016, stating that it was not an easy road, but she was proud to forge a path for a future generation of girls who wanted to be referees. 

The struggles of a female referee

Lauren Holtkamp is currently the longest-tenured female referee after entering into the NBA during the 2014-15 season. She first made headlines as one of the rare female NBA referees. Holtkamp almost immediately faced criticism from players and fans who didn’t think a woman could do the job.

During a 2015 Clippers-versus-Cavaliers game, Chris Paul said something to Holtkamp during an inbound pass that caused the ref to blow her whistle and call a technical. Paul went on a rant after the game about the call, telling reporters, “That’s ridiculous. If that’s the case, this might not be for her.”

While Paul’s intentions may or may not have been aimed at her gender, several pointed out that male referees are rarely criticized with similar language. The fact that her very merits were questioned by a player who is no stranger to criticizing referees was a bad look made worse by the fact that Paul is the president of the NBA Players’ Association.

How many female NBA referees are there?

There are currently four female referees on the NBA’s officiating roster. Natalie Sago and Ashley Moyer-Gleich joined during the last NBA season; Jenna Schroeder came on board this year. Although four may seem insignificant, the fact that the NBA went from one female referee to four shows some progress. 

While it’s been the societal norm for men to work in women’s sports, women are just beginning to get these opportunities. Today, there are four NBA referees. Hopefully, in 10 years, this number will be much higher.

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