Violet Palmer is truly a trailblazer. In 1997, along with Dee Kantner, she became one of the first female referees in the NBA. Kantner left her post in 2002, but Palmer has continued to make history during her 18-year stint on the court. In addition to being the only woman to have held her position for as long as she has, Palmer is also the only woman to officiate the playoffs in any major American professional sport.
Palmer continues to break gender barriers and show the world that she can do her job as well as any man. I caught up with her during this offseason to chat about how she got started, criticism, and what it’s like to run into a player off the court.
If Aaron Wade, who assisted former NBA director of officiating Darrell Garretson, hadn't encouraged you to attend the training program to be an NBA ref, what path do you think your basketball career would have taken you?
I would have continued to be an NCAA Division 1 referee, because that’s what I was doing before, and I was very happy doing it. Of course, once I received the call from Dr. Wade and had gotten into the NBA training program, I wasn’t even thinking I would get into the NBA. I just thought it was free and would be great training. So, I tried it.
I recently watched the ESPN documentary Queen Vee, which is based on your career. You mentioned that at one time you wanted to be a cop. What similarities do you see in the two professions?
Having confidence. You’ve got to have a little swag to be a police officer. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I love being in control. I love dealing with rules and running the game, and I think that all those things go along with being a police officer, so I think they have a lot of similarities.
How do you feel with players object to your calls?
I totally understand it. I mean, you have to realize that once you become a referee and put the shirt on that it is just the nature of the beast. People are only rooting for the team that they want to win. They couldn’t really care less if you are right or wrong. You just have to stand your ground and know what you are doing is right, and you are trying to do the best you can to make the correct call.
Have you ever regretted a call you have made?
I wouldn’t necessarily say regret because, of course, at the time when you make them you think that you are right. But as your career goes on and you’re in games and you blow you’re whistle and you’re at a time out and you can replay the call in your head, and you go, “Maybe I missed something,” with all the reaction that I’m getting, or the complaints. So, you don’t necessarily second-guess yourself or anything like that, but you go back after the game and look at the videotape and see if you got it right or wrong. If you got it wrong, then you try to go through the steps of seeing how you can get in better position. Or you ask yourself, was it your concentration, or was it that you were out of position? Then you try to work on those areas so that you can minimize those mistakes in future games.
NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley once said professional basketball “is a man’s game. It should stay that way.” Did you feel vindicated when he apologized for the way he treated you initially?
I wouldn’t say vindicated. Coming in, when I first started, it was the “good ole boys” system. I realized men were going to have something to say and I just didn’t take those things personally. I understand that when you are a referee, people make negative comments. They are not necessarily personal against you. They just do it because that is what people do to referees. With Charles, it was nice when he came up and apologized. But vindication? No. I think what made me feel good was that he was able to look at me and see me for my work. I felt good that he admitted that I could do my job like any other man.
Are you ever scared that something will happen on the court that you cannot handle?
I used to be. Now? No. I think I am fully prepared, and I have enough years of service and I’ve learned that you step in if you can get them before all hell breaks loose, then you can possibly stop it. If you can’t, once they start fighting or are in a brawl, then you just have to step back and take numbers. And they will eventually break up themselves. So I don’t have any fear of that anymore.
Do you have a favorite NBA team?
No, I don’t have a favorite team, but I do have cities that I like to go to. My favorite is New York.
How do you handle officiating games without getting emotionally involved?
There is no emotion. It’s work. That’s something else you learn, once you become a referee. It’s a job for me. It’s like a doctor going to work everyday, or a firefighter, or a police officer. When I put my referee uniform on, pack my bag and go to the airport, I’m going to work.
Do you think there will come a time when there are as many female refs as there are male?
No. Never. It will not happen. I think our numbers will grow though. We take baby steps, but these are huge steps for the gender barrier. In fact, I am extremely proud to have another female referee in the NBA. [Lauren Holtkamp became the NBA’s third female referee in 2014 – editors.] And I think, in the years to come, we will possibly have one or two more depending upon their training, and that’s all we can hope for. It takes a certain type of female to referee in the NBA, and I’m sure they are out there, but the great thing for them to know is that they have an opportunity.
What advice do you have for people who want to break down gender barriers in their profession?
If it’s in your soul and in your heart, and you’ve set your mind to it, you’ve got to go for it. You can’t allow all the negative comments, feedback, and disappointments to deter you from your goals. I’ve never allowed those things to happen. Dream it and you can be it. Just continue to work at it and once that door opens, you kick that sucker down! That’s what you’ve got to do.
Do you ever run into any players off the court?
Every now and then I run into them and we have a kind greeting like, “Hey, how you doing? How’s your summer?” And they may come over and shake my hand and give me a little hug or something like that. So it’s just a mutual greeting of respect and that’s about it. In all my years in the NBA, I have never had a negative greeting with any player off the court. They are always respectful and very, very nice.
Photos: Danny Moloshok/AP