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.