Palmer, Violet

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Violet Palmer


Professional basketball referee

A lifelong athlete, Violet Palmer developed her love of basketball as a child playing with her brothers at their backyard hoop. After a successful college basketball career, she sought a way to remain a part of the sport and found it by becoming a referee. Palmer began by filling in as a substitute referee at the community recreations center where she worked, and quickly rose to become one of the most respected referees in women's college basketball.

Palmer approached officiating basketball games with the same seriousness, skill, and devotion that she had shown during her career as a competitive player. Often nicknamed "zebras" because of their black and white striped jerseys, referees may be the most overlooked figures on a basketball court, noticed only when fans or players loudly disagree with a call. Referees do not get either the high salaries or the admiration and reverence that professional athletes receive. However, officiating in basketball is an art requiring physical stamina, intense focus, and a thorough knowledge of the game. Violet Palmer's hard work, dedication, and study were rewarded in 1994 when she was tapped to enter the referee training program for the National Basketball Association (NBA), the major men's professional league in the United States.

Ignoring those who expressed doubts that a woman could officiate men's games, Palmer became the first woman referee of the NBA in 1997. In her career since that time, her skills and her professional no-nonsense manner have won over most of her early critics and earned her the respect of players, coaches, and fans.

Grew Up in a Loving Family

Violet Palmer was born on July 20, 1964, in the Los Angeles suburb town of Lynwood, California. She grew up in the nearby town of Compton, an area known for its poverty and high level of crime and gang activity. However, young Violet, her two sisters, and her brother grew up in the security of a stable and loving family. Her father James Palmer was foreman at a company that made parts for airplanes, and her mother Gussie Palmer worked in the family home, which was always a place of support and safety for her children. Even as adults, the Palmer children would return each week to eat Sunday dinner together in their parents' home in Compton.

Violet Palmer began playing basketball at the age of five on the hoop her father had installed in the backyard. Gussie and James Palmer had both played basketball, and there were other athletes in the family as well. Palmer's brother Rod would grow up to become head basketball coach at Compton High School, and her nephew would play for the famous Harlem Globetrotters. Palmer's own athletic skill at Compton High School earned her a scholarship to attend California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

At Cal State Poly, Palmer's basketball coach was Darlene May, a star athlete who had broken down barriers to become the first woman to ever referee a women's Olympic basketball game. May became a friend and mentor to Palmer and introduced her to the art of refereeing games.

Palmer excelled in her athletic career at Cal State Poly, playing point guard and serving as captain of her team for three years. The point guard plays an important position on a basketball team, directing the offense by calling plays and being the central ball handler. It is a position that calls for speed, strength, and control. As point guard and captain of the Cal State Poly Broncos, Palmer led her team to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II championship in both 1985 and 1986.

A male basketball player with such a distinguished college athletic career might hope to join a professional basketball team, but in the late 1980s there was no professional basketball league in the U.S. Women athletes who wished to continue their careers often took jobs on European teams, but Palmer had no wish to leave her community and her tight-knit family, so she did not consider professional basketball an option. Many ex-athletes coach teams, and Palmer tried coaching a high school team for two seasons, but she found coaching to be too stressful.

Began Officiating after College

She graduated from college in 1987 with a degree in recreation administration and a minor in public administration and went to work for the nearby city of Placentia Department of Parks and Recreation. Because administrators at recreation centers sometimes had to fill in if referees did not show up for games, Palmer's job required her to study officiating. She began to referee local high school games, finding that officiating gave her a way to continue to participate in basketball. After only a year, she started receiving job offers to officiate for women's college games.

Over the next nine years, Palmer worked as referee in all three divisions of the NCAA, officiating in the women's final four tournament five times and working at two NCAA championships. Palmer herself was surprised by how quickly she had earned acceptance at the highest level of amateur basketball. As her career progressed, Palmer's quiet confidence and thorough knowledge of basketball began to attract attention outside of college athletics. In 1994, she received a call from a representative of the National Basketball Association, offering her a place in the NBA referee training program.

At first Palmer thought that a friend was playing a joke on her, but she was soon convinced that the NBA was serious about increasing diversity among its referees. Her competitive nature took the challenge eagerly and she entered the referee development program, which included training and three years of working summers officiating for the Continental Basketball Association. The CBA is a men's basketball minor league which develops players for the NBA. During much of the rigorous training program, Palmer continued her full-time job as a recreation administrator and also worked as a referee for the newly launched Women's National Basketball Association.

Became the First Woman NBA Referee

However, in 1997, she quit her day job to go to work as an NBA referee. On October 31, 1997, as the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks took the floor, Violet Palmer became the first woman to officiate for an NBA basketball game. Nine minutes and fifty-two seconds into the first quarter, she blew her whistle for the first time, calling out-of-bounds against Vancouver and making history. Shortly afterwards, another basketball official, Dee Kantner became the second female NBA referee.

Palmer was soon working a full schedule, officiating more than 70 games a season and spending as many as 22 days a month on the road. Though many coaches, players, and fans had questioned the ability of a woman to perform well as a referee amid the pounding action of an NBA game, Palmer gradually won almost universal respect. Many African-American players remarked that she reminded them of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or other strong women in their lives who permitted no bad behavior or rudeness.

At a Glance …

Born Violet Palmer July 20, 1964, in Lynwood, California. Education: California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, BS, recreational administration, 1987.

Career: City of Placentia, Department of Parks and Recreation, recreation administrator, 1987–97; various high school, college, and professional women's basketball games and tournaments, referee, 1987–97; National Basketball Association, referee, 1997–.

Selected memberships: National Association of Sports Officials, board of directors.

Selected awards: Atlanta Tipoff Club, Naismith College Official of the Year, 1999; Amateur Athletic Foundation, "Making the Call" honoree, 2000.

Addresses: Office—National Basketball Association, Olympic Tower, 645 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10022.

Refereeing NBA games presents special challenges for an official, such as the height of the players which placed much of the action well above Palmer's head. Their size can also make players intimidating when they angrily challenge an official's call. Palmer ap-proached the players with calm authority and a sense of humor, often responding to their challenges with a joke, and never losing her self-possession. In the November 17, 1999, issue of People Weekly Palmer told journalists, "Confrontation is part of being a referee. If they cross a line they are not supposed to, they will receive a technical foul."

In 2002, the NBA dismissed Dee Kantner, and Palmer became the only woman referee in the league. Though she had not enjoyed the tension of coaching a team, she handled the high pressure of the NBA with tough confidence. She wore the same official uniforms worn by male referees, having them tailored to fit, and asked only one concession to her gender—her own locker room.

Along with maintaining a full schedule of games, Palmer has continued to educate herself as a referee, spending long hours training and studying game films to improve her skills. She also volunteers her time to help train young officials at the Youth Referee Clinic in Los Angeles, where girls between 15 and 18 years of age learn the art of refereeing. In 2001, she founded the Violet Palmer Referee Camp, a yearly training program where adult men and women can learn refereeing from a professional.

On April 25, 2006, Palmer achieved one of the most prized goals of a professional basketball referee—she officiated at an NBA playoff game. When she blew her first whistle in Game 2 of the first round series between the Indiana Pacers and the New Jersey Nets, Palmer became the first woman ever to referee a playoff game, making history again, and probably not for the last time.



Biography Today, September 2005, pp. 91-102.

Ebony, February 1998, pp. 172-4.

Essence, November 2004, p. 42.

Jet, May 15, 2006, p. 59; November 17, 1997, pp. 50.

Newsweek, March 8, 2004, pp. 38-9.

People Weekly, November 17, 1997, pp. 235-8.

Sports Illustrated, April 20, 1998, p. 24.


"First Female NBA Referee Makes History," The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, (December 29, 2006).

"NBA's Only Female Ref 'Doesn't Back Down,'" USA Today, (December 29, 2006).

"Violet Palmer," Biography Resource Center, (December 29, 2006).