Changed the Game: Former NBA ref Violet Palmer joined the league at a time when women weren't welcome

·4 min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Seeing a woman involved in the intricacies of the NBA is so commonplace, there’s hardly a second thought when seeing Becky Hammon, Lindsey Harding or Teresa Weatherspoon as assistant coaches.

Even ESPN’s Doris Burke has become a cult figure over the last few years, for her analysis as much as her gender, earning mentions from Drake on social media.

But in 1997, the NBA world was a much different place for Violet Palmer — who along with Dee Kantner became the first women referees in league history.

Luckily, there was no Twitter or Instagram to dissect and criticize every minute call, but Michael Jordan was still in full prime, Dennis Rodman was on the loose and Charles Barkley wasn’t a lovable presence on Thursday nights, but an outspoken power forward.

Violet Palmer a champion in her own right

Palmer was breaking new ground at a time where the world was much slower to progress, much less professional sports. A Division II point guard at Cal Poly Pomona, she was a two-time national champion who later officiated the NCAA Women’s Final Four from 1994 to 1997.

Violet Palmer runs down the court with a whistle in her mouth while refereeing a game.
Violet Palmer officates an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks in 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

But this was a different ballgame, a merciless environment where it seemed like everyone was waiting for her to fail — especially in a thankless spot like refereeing. The NBA had recently launched the WNBA months before to much success, and was pressing to be more open.

But Palmer wasn’t being handed anything, just given a chance by the league to succeed or fail on her own merits. The thought of refereeing in the NBA became more attainable after doing the summer league in 1995.

"I was the No. 3 referee in the world for women's basketball. I had everything: The Final Four. Big TV games. All the limelight I wanted,” Palmer told USA Today.

"But my personality is if you give me a challenge, I'm going to take it. In the back of my mind, I said, 'It doesn't cost me anything. I can just try it. If nothing happens, the training will be good.’ ”

Criticizing bang-bang plays is much more accepted publicly than coaching — and with the officials having the last word, it made for a tenuous environment for Palmer to walk into.

After what seemed like early hazing from the champion Bulls, Jordan relented to say, “If they can referee, they can referee no matter what sex they are.”

Kantner left the NBA after 2002, leaving Palmer as the lone female official for quite a while. Now, the likes of Simone Jelks, Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder have followed in Palmer’s footsteps.

Post-referee life

After retiring at age 52 due to knee problems, Palmer went to the league office as a manager in referee operations in 2016 — two years after coming out publicly as gay with her partner, celebrity stylist Tanya Stine.

“This is actually the big formal coming out," Palmer told the AP in July 2014. "We are saying to the world, to everyone, here's my wife of 20 years. This is the big coming out.”

The bond she developed with her co-workers created a confidence, they knew before the world knew.

“The guys that I was really close to knew who she was," Palmer said. "But there was half the staff that didn't know. But I can honestly say, as far as the NBA knew, she was my domestic partner. For me to verbally come out to the 60 guys I work with, I didn't do that until 10 years [into my career]."

Somewhere between her notable start and the 919 games she worked over 18 NBA seasons, Palmer’s presence became less of a spectacle, less of a sideshow worthy of sexist jokes and more part of the game.

You could catch her chuckling at players who tried her, or even the astute fans who know the good refs on a first-name basis, doing their best to get a reaction. But you found her roaming the hardwood during critical playoff games, a true testament to her effectiveness as an official considering only the best get assigned beyond the regular season.

Her contemporaries, the old, grizzled vets who came before her, often complimented her perseverance in getting through the first couple years and fully embracing the grind that comes with officiating: No private planes, constant travel and the endless complaints that rarely end with a “good call, ref.”

The NFL didn’t name its first full-time official until 2015, and only earlier this month did it hire a Black woman as a full-time official, so Palmer was nearly 20 years ahead of the curve.

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