“I Never Knew That What I Was Doing Would Open Up These Doors”: Violet Palmer, NBA’s Trailblazing Ref

As she moves away from on-court duties, we talk to Palmer about her extraordinary life and career, and the tremendous impact she had

Image via Makers video series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LizR5LV1nqs

Violet Palmer never wanted to be a trailblazer — she wanted to be a great referee. But by being the first-ever female NBA referee in 1997, she made history. And after coming out as gay in 2013, she made history again as the first openly gay referee.

Now, Palmer is retiring from on-court duties nearly 20 years after she first took the floor. What’s next? Palmer reflected on her life and career in our conversation with her recently.

NBRA: You’re now retired from your on-court duties. So, what’s next?

Violet Palmer: I’m done running. The league’s been really good to me, and have shown me what they think of me as a referee. They offered me the opportunity to come in as a manager in referee development/performance, and I thought it’s a great opportunity, now having an opportunity to go into management and help my fellow referees.

“I was change, and anytime you bring about change, it brings a lot of negativity, because people don’t like change.”

NBRA: You’ve had a really long career as an on-court referee, and you’ve also talked about the importance of having women in the pipeline, on the college side as well. How have you seen the evolution of women in the referee industry since you’ve been an NBA ref?

VP: That’s something else I’ve really been proud of. When I first started, I used to walk into a room and I was the only woman. I never knew that what I was doing would open up these doors. Not that I’m trying to brag about it because I’m totally humbled by everything that’s happened to me. But there’s a female ref in the NFL now, and people text and email me and go ‘You’re responsible for her being on that field, she’s gotten that opportunity because you’ve made it possible. In a man’s world, people can judge women by their work and not by their gender.’ And that’s why I’m humbled to hear that. I was just trying to be a good, solid referee, because that’s really all I’ve ever wanted to be. With the league hiring Lauren Holtkamp, that says a lot as well. We’ve made it, we’re respected — not as women but because we can do our job. Now you watch the NBA, and you see women commentators, women coaches. I’ve helped with breaking that barrier, showing people ‘you know what, we’re good at what we do, and we just want a fair opportunity to go out and do our jobs.’

NBRA: How has the reaction changed over time — from when you first started to now?

VP: When I first started it was a whirlwind. I was change, and anytime you bring about change, it brings a lot of negativity, because people don’t like change. But once I was able to go out and work, players and coaches got to know me, commentators got to know me, and after that, people could say ‘she’s good at what she does, and hold her own like any man out there.’ I think it was my work, and my work ethic, and after a while no one really cared about the whole woman thing anymore.

“I just look at myself as a down-to-earth, basic referee. I’m not looking for notoriety, or trying to make myself bigger than what I am. But through my accomplishments and what I’ve done, and who I work for, it is a big deal.”

NBRA: Was there ever a moment where the scrutiny of you personally, or of referees in general, became really overwhelming?

VP: I think there were comments about gender, but that was to be expected. But I want to set the record straight — for any referee, you’re going to deal with scrutiny. That’s part of the business. It’s just something that goes with being a referee. Once you put that shirt on, that’s a target on your back. But I just said, ‘I’m going to go out, I’m going to do my job, I’m going to be good at it, and that will take care of all the naysayers.’

NBRA: You were also the first NBA ref to come out as gay. In your trailblazing career, where did that stand with everything else?

VP: I can honestly say that there was no negativity with that. None. When my wife and I decided to get married, that just happened. I’ve been with my wife for 22 years, we’ve been married for two years now. And I think it’s a good example to show people that a relationship is a relationship and love is love, and I think that’s what people saw. That part was a big surprise for me, how much media attention occurred from it. I just look at myself as a down-to-earth, basic referee. I’m not looking for notoriety, or trying to make myself bigger than what I am. But through my accomplishments and what I’ve done, and who I work for, it is a big deal. If I can be an example to show the world, that you know what, it doesn’t matter what your sexual preference is, you can be successful, have a family and be married, I think how far we’ve come.

Buzzer Beaters

Most memorable moment as a ref: “Getting hired. When I got the phone call from Rod Thorn, that was incredible. That was the call that would change my life. I took that chance and said ‘you know what, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this,’ but I knew I could do the job. The second greatest moment was when I was a ref in the playoffs. That solidified me as an NBA referee.”

One secret about being a ref that most people wouldn’t know: “We all hate to travel. It’s awful. You’re on the road 18–20 days a month, for six months, it’s brutal. A lot of us are married, have children. We miss graduations, birthdays, little league, piano recitals. We miss so much, and the big sacrifice is our families.”

A TV show that you watched during long hours when traveling: “I had quite a few. I’m always into strong women, so I can say I loved Kerry Washington and Scandal. I love The Good Wife. I like shows where women are in power and control.”

If you weren’t a referee, what would you be?: “I love kids, I’m pretty sure I would be doing something in that field. I’d be a director or superintendent of recreation for somewhere, probably in the city of Los Angeles. I’ve always had a passion for helping kids.”

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