Violet Palmer, First Female NBA Referee
Just a year after the WNBA started, Violet Palmer joined the NBA—as its first female referee. She recalls the fears, jeers and eventual cheers that marked the arc of her career.
First Female NBA Referee | MAKERS
Violet Palmer on her first NBA game, the resistance she faced, and earning the respect of colleagues and players.
First Game Jitters: Always proud of her abilities, Palmer admits she was sweating before that first game. “I just knew the entire world was waiting for me to fall on my face. When I literally walked out on the floor for the first time to referee a pro basketball game, I went ‘Oh, my God. What have I gotten myself into.’”
Male Pattern Rudeness: At first, Palmer faced men at their worst. “All the things that were said—the reporters, the players, the coaches, you name it, I heard it. ‘Go back and referee the women’s game!’ ‘Oh, your ponytail’s too tight.’” Her performance and professionalism eventually silenced her critics and even drew an apology from all-star player Charles Barkley.
Showing Her Stripes: If fans thought they could boo Palmer out of the game, they thought wrong. “It really gave me more motivation to go out and learn the craft, do the job, be a professional and show every single person that you know what? You will be quiet real soon. Because you will see I can do my job just like any male referee on that floor.” She was right. By the end of her career, she was no longer a woman on the court, but just another ref.
VIOLET PALMER: I was scared out of my wits because I just knew that the entire world was waiting for me to fall on my face.
I love being a girl. I just didn't really like the girly things. My mother couldn't make me cook and put on the makeup and play with the Barbies and all that stuff. Didn't want to do it. When it came to sports, it was just my knack. And the time when I was trying to go to college, Title IX had just kicked in, and they started providing more money for women's athletics.
Getting a scholarship, you could go to school for free, that was huge. That was more of an accomplishment than actually playing the actual basketball. I took a couple of part time jobs in the summer, and I was scorekeeping men's basketball. And a couple of times, my referees didn't show up. So of course, I would put the shirt on, start refereeing.
- Violet Palmer became the first ever female ref.
VIOLET PALMER: When I literally walked out on the floor for the first time to referee a pro basketball game, I went, oh my god. What have I gotten myself into? Cameras were flicking, everybody's looking, I hear all the whispers, oh my god, the woman is here. Generally, it was a good old boys club, and I think that's what in any sport.
There were a lot of referees that resented women, you know, joining the ranks. They thought that they were going to have to talk differently, maybe they couldn't yell at me, maybe they couldn't use the foul language with me, maybe couldn't touch me. All the things that were said-- the reporters, the players, the coaches, you name it-- I heard it. Go back and referee the women's game. Your ponytail is too tight.
CEDRIC MAXWELL: To Violet Palmer, go back to the kitchen. Go in there and make me some bacon and eggs, would you?
VIOLET PALMER: I think, for me, that really gave me more motivation to go out, learn the craft, do the job, be a professional, and show every single person that, you know what, you will be quiet real soon because you will see I can do my job just like any male referee on that floor.
I can break up fights pretty easy. I step in, they stop. If the guys step in, they may punch them in the mouth. They won't do it with me. So I think being that strong female out there sometimes can calm the waters.
I'm given the respect as a woman, but I've earned the respect as a referee.
VIOLET PALMER: I had probably one of the most phenomenal coaches in women's basketball. And it was the late Darlene May. I always admired her. And I just kind of loved what she stood for. I mean she was very firm, very strict, but in a real loving way. And probably in some ways reminded me of my mother. Coach May was the first woman to ever internationally referee a men's game. So not only was she a great collegiate referee, internationally
I think she was one of the trailblazers that actually opened it up. Watching her do college games and watching her doing the international games was one of my major motivations for saying, you know what, maybe after graduating, maybe-- and, of course, listening to a couple of people say, you know what, you kind of have a good knack for this refereeing stuff --to actually go out and try it.
I'll never forget one day we were sitting in her office and she says, you know I heard that you're thinking about doing a little refereeing. And I said, yeah, what do you think? She said, I honestly think you would be really, really good at it. So of course with that coming from her sitting there, I went, wow, I'll definitely give it a try. And that's when I actually started doing the high school and worked my way up to the college. And here I am in the National Basketball Association.
VIOLET PALMER: I played Little League baseball starting out. And it was coed. I was the only girl on the team. And it's so funny. I had taken this picture with all the little boys. And you see these two barrettes sticking out of this Red Sox baseball cap. It's the cutest thing. So that was actually my only coed team that I actually played on. Every other team --softball, track, volleyball, basketball-- was always girls. I think I kind of liked the attention being the only girl out there with the neighborhood boys. I think that attention was probably a little more fun for me. I think even now looking at the attention that I received from from the guys that I work with, it's not so bad. Not at all. Not bad being the lone wolf out there.
VIOLET PALMER: My first game in the National Basketball Association was literally a blur. It was probably-- it was incredible. It was phenomenal. It was fantastic. Everything you can imagine. But I was scared out of my wits because I just knew that the entire world was waiting for me to fall on my face. As soon as the ball went up and I blew my first whistle and gave an out of bounds, it was all over. It was just a regular basketball game, like any day of the week. My training, my development, my hard work, my work ethic, how I carried myself. I knew that all those things would just come into play once I got on the floor. But getting there, oh my god.
VIOLET PALMER: I think in kind of an underlying way, you know, I think my mom was like, you're going to get married. And you're going to have kids and, you know, all the traditional stuff. I said, Mom, it's not going to happen. I'm too active. I'm too busy. There's too many things that I just want to do in my life.
I knew that I wanted to do something where I traveled, where I was having the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to do. Kids change that. Because if you are a true parent, your life revolves around your children. I think, you know, being a power woman and not being married and not having any children-- not a big deal, not at all. It's kind of like, oh, OK. But if you go the other route, I think people go, wow, that's wonderful too. So you can-- it's kind of the best of both worlds at this point, without a doubt.
VIOLET PALMER: Referees are the last person that wants to decide a basketball game. And I can say that for every single referee that goes out, --a referee any sport-- that's not what we want. It can be careers on the line. It can be coach's careers, player's careers, games that are on the line. We want a fair even playing field for either team to have an opportunity to win. And that's what we try our best to provide every single time we're out on the floor.
VIOLET PALMER: Most people are thinking, oh my god. I can't believe she's taking all this negative criticism when we get criticism every time you walk on a court, every time you blow your whistle. When you're a referee, you're used to 300, 3,000, 30,000 people yelling at you, calling you names, calling [INAUDIBLE] name, saying things inappropriately. So it's almost like I heard what was said, but I didn't take it personally because they were really talking about Violet Palmer the referee because they really don't know Violet Palmer the person. So it was never anything personal, in my opinion.
VIOLET PALMER: People do not realize how respectful the players in the National Basketball Association are toward me. The difference is really, really small, but it's out there. And it happens sometimes. It's the funniest thing. We have our captains meeting. And players now, they'll come over to greet. I put my hand out to shake their hand. They kiss me on the cheek. And it's a very respectful kiss. It's more nice to see you, happy to have you here. And that same player, he'll end up getting a technical foul later on in the game. And it's like no big deal. Even players even now will come apologize to me. And my counterparts, they go, well, he sure didn't apologize to me when I gave him a technical foul. I go, you don't smell good like I do. There's a difference.
VIOLET PALMER: Million dollar players tend to whine a little more. And that's fine, you know. But it's pretty-- it's pretty common, I think. And even fans would say that, no different than how I feel. But whining has nothing to do-- doesn't get you any calls. It just gets me to go, really? OK.
VIOLET PALMER: I really wouldn't look at myself as a feminist. I look at-- I would say that I am pro-- I'm pro women. I'm pro women that if a woman is able to do the job, that she should be given the opportunity. I don't think women should just get something because they're women, no.
I'm one that feels like, you know what? You should work for it just as well as any man. Just being able to have the opportunity is more important now. Because I think for us, we're so strong that if we're given the opportunity, we will be successful, without a doubt.
VIOLET PALMER: I think the skills that you learn from sports are you learn to be a really, really good communicator. You learn that there's always compromise, that things just can't always go your way. I think it helps with confidence. And I think sportsmanship, being fair. That's been a huge plus for me in learning, growing up, being a part of sports all my life that it's just a fair playing field. Those are the huge qualities that I think that I've gotten from sports.
VIOLET PALMER: I was given an opportunity. And I just put two feet forward. Not only did I jump, I ran through the door. And I'm still running right to this day. So I think that's something that I can always share with kids growing up that they can look at. And don't let anyone tell you there's something that you can't do because, of course for me, if I would have taken that, I wouldn't be sitting here today talking about what I do as an NBA referee because, of course, no one else had done it.