December 20th, 2013
06:52 AM ET

NBA’s sole female referee recounts her trailblazing path

Tune in to "New Day" on CNN from 6 to 9 a.m. ET. 

Violet Palmer didn't set out to be a trailblazer for women in men's sports, but as the only female referee in the NBA today, that's exactly what she's become.

"I think for all women, we can do anything we want; we just have to have the opportunity to now show that we can do the job." she told CNN's Michaela Pereira.

Palmer was given her opportunity to officiate basketball games on a national level in 1997 and recalls what it was like facing adversity and discrimination, saying "Every negative thing you can think of, they've thrown it at me."

" ‘You're not going to make it.’ ‘Why are you here? Go back to WNBA.’ ‘Players and coaches are not going to accept you.’ ‘Your guys that you work with, they're not going to accept you.’ "

They did accept her, and with 17 seasons under her belt, her refereeing abilities are never in question, nor is her ability to stand up to the towering basketball players whose fate she helps decide.

"I think guys respect hard work."

But she admits having to keep the rookies in line.

"Every now and then, I might have a little young fella come out, and I say, ‘Oh wait, young fella, I've got a lot more years of service than you. Check yourself.’ ”

Palmer also knows that taking heat from fans comes with the territory.

"I used to wear my hair long, and they'd go, ‘Oh, your ponytail is too tight,’ or ‘You need glasses.’ I still know that being on the court when I'm doing my job, it's not personal."

Before becoming an NBA official, Palmer refereed high school and college-level games, racking up nine years of collegiate officiating experience, as well as five NCAA Final Fours and two NCAA Championship games. Then the NBA began to take notice.

In 1997, she was recruited by the NBA to try out for a position in the league.

"You give me a shot ... you know how you crack the door? I just kicked it right open."

Palmer was one of two female recruits that year, shattering the glass ceiling for female referees wanting a shot in the NBA.

Born on July 20, 1964, Palmer always loved sports, even as a young child. The only girl on her little league team, she showed that even back then, she wasn't afraid to break the mold.

"I want to go out and play with my brother and play baseball in the street and just do it all."

It seems Palmer did do it all. The Compton, California, native played basketball for her school's teams in junior high, high school, and college. Her passion earned her a full athletic scholarship to California Polytechnic State University, where she won two NCAA Women's Championships.

She believes it's that love of the game that contributed to her success in the NBA. Palmer remains the only female referee among 62 of the best referees in the world, a chosen few given the opportunity to officiate at the highest level.

She tells Pereira what it was like officiating the first game.

"I was scared out of my wits. It was so much going on, so much excitement. But for me, as soon as I walked out on that floor and we tossed the ball, now it was time to go to work."

Season after season, Palmer maintains a grueling schedule, keeping up with the demands of her career. She stays mentally and physically fit despite being on the road an average of 22 days a month.

Although the work is challenging, she is optimistic about the prospect of more women joining her ranks.

"The bar is really high, but I can honestly say we have two women right now that are in our training program, and they are awesome."

Posted by
Filed under: Interview • News • Videos
soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. James

    "They did accept her, and with 17 seasons under her belt, her refereeing abilities are never in question"

    She has been voted the worst ref in the league by the players every year she has been in the league. She is terrible by any measure. I am all for women refs, but she sets back the cause of female officials by her incompetence. Who can forget her continuation call from 80 feet from the basket with 16 seconds left on the shot clock. She is laughably bad.

    December 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  2. Smiling Bear

    I have seen several games officiated by Ms Palmer. Once the game started her gender was irrelevant. She was at least AS competent as the other refs...easily

    December 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  3. RichardLB

    I always find the irony in the comments that are made about "facing adversity and discrimination" when they imply that only that segment (women, minorities, age, etc) experience them when the reality in the US (from what I have experienced) is that it is constant regardless of who you are, your race, your gender, or anything. When fighting for something, be it a job, a task, recognition, services from a provider, etc, adversaries will always exploit a perceived weakness in order to gain an advantage.

    Of course, just because it happens everywhere does not make it right, and it is hard to change human nature.

    December 20, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  4. suess

    The NBA is fixed. How hard can officiating a fixed game be? She is awful, just like the rest of them. She may be a bit less obvious when blowing calls purposely- and I'll give her props for that. Plus-she hasn't been caught yet betting on games she is reffing. This is good. If she could only grease her hair back like the rest of those douche bags out there.

    December 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  5. Captain Dave

    Violet Palmer may be a great woman, a pioneer, an inspiration etc., but she is a terrible referee. Inappropriate calls, non-calls, just bad calls every game.

    December 20, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
  6. Charles

    true CNN style..don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.. after all she is black and female so she must be facing discrimination based on that "NOT" her inability to be a good ref.

    December 20, 2013 at 11:12 am | Reply
  7. George Eichorn

    A correction is necessary. Violet Palmer is not the sole female referee in the NBA this season. She is joined by two others as NBA officials: Lauren Holtkamp and Brenda Pantoja, in this 2013-2014 NBA Season.

    December 20, 2013 at 10:34 am | Reply
  8. Gary Harmer

    and funny enough " Comments are not pre-screened before they post." yet "Your comment is awaiting moderation.". Come on CNN..tell it like it really is

    December 20, 2013 at 10:18 am | Reply
    • catori Shadi

      You have done something objectionable in the past & have come to the attention of the moderators for special attention.

      Just got to be more respectful & polite.

      December 20, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  9. Chris H.

    Her officiating never in doubt? She always blows calls when I watch a game she's officiating.

    December 20, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  10. Gary Harmer

    Violet palmer is not the only woman NBA ref- when you said "her refereeing abilities are never in question" that is completely false. She is listed time and time again as one of the worst 5 reds in the league. She is always surrounded by controversial calls, and has cost many teams games with superstar calls, and "reputation" calls

    December 20, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  11. Ari

    Palmer is not the only female ref in the NBA. There is at least one other, Lauren Holtkamp. Get your facts straight before you publish.

    December 20, 2013 at 10:08 am | Reply
  12. Mike P

    The 12/17 game between the Bobcats & Kings had a female ref, but not the one in the is article. Therefore I'm not sure Violet Palmer is the sole female ref.

    December 20, 2013 at 9:24 am | Reply
  13. NBAFan

    What about the other two female refs from last year? Lauren Holtkamp and Brenda Pantoja. I believe there was another female ref too, Dee something

    December 20, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
    • cappie

      Dee Kantner started in the NBA at the same time as Violet Palmer. She was fired from the NBA in 2002 and returned to refereeing Div 1 women's college and WNBA games. For several years now, she has been the head of officials for the WNBA – a dubious distinction since WNBA officiating is an absolute joke.

      December 20, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
  14. Charlene Casey

    Yay Violet! I have followed your career since you were a coach at Rancho Park in the late 90's!! You happened to notice my daughter,Chelsea, was the only girl on a baseball team at the park, she was a good pitcher and bigger than most of the boys but she cried a lot. You picked her out – toughened her up – made her stand up straight and play well. You focused on all the kids but Chelsea felt you were her mentor and guardian during that Summer. The conversation, scolding, trips to Dodger stadium ... she never ever ever forgot that – and practices that attitude, swagger and confidence to this day. As a mother, I appreciated your attention; you were an example for ALL the women at that park to get and keep their ish together! I will always always always be a fan and admirer. I hope I get the opportunity to see you umpire a game one day. I certainly would love for you to see Chelsea again one day. You are a BOSS and I love love love it! I hope you remember who we are but that was a looong time ago. As a woman I am so proud of you. I, too, adopted that swagger and have succeeded in my field and have the respect of my peers as a result. Yep – a Boss!

    December 20, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
  15. Daisy

    Not a commentary on her gender, but she is one of (not thee) the worst referees in the nba. Has little feel for the game and has not improved much.

    December 20, 2013 at 9:14 am | Reply
  16. Goat

    I always love a good story where hard work and dedication pays off. She earned her stripes and deserved the break she got and is making the most of it every day. Hers is a story that should inspire everybody to work hard and make your dreams come true.

    December 20, 2013 at 9:05 am | Reply
  17. Angela

    noticing negative vibes amongst anchors on New Day. Roberts vs. Phillips again?

    December 20, 2013 at 9:00 am | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.