The National Basketball Association hired Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer as full-time referees Tuesday, marking the first time in major U.S. pro sports that women will officiate regular season games in an all-male league.
Kantner had been supervisor of officials for the WNBA, the women’s pro league that completed its first season this summer. Palmer was a WNBA official, and both have extensive experience in women’s college basketball. They auditioned for NBA positions during the last three exhibition seasons.
Kanter downplayed her role as a pioneer. “I’m always confident I can do the job,” she said after a recent preseason assignment. “Otherwise, I don’t think the NBA would have spent so much money and time on me. And I wouldn’t have spent as much time on it, either.”
With the NBA’s 52nd season opening Friday, the league’s biggest star cautiously endorsed the move.
“If they can referee, they can referee no matter what sex they are,” the Bulls’ Michael Jordan said. “They’ve been practicing, and I’m pretty sure they’ve been trained for this. Let’s see what happens.”
But Kantner and Palmer will clearly be in the spotlight in historic roles as the first women on the floor for a regular-season game other than cheerleaders or dancers.
“You have to hand it to David Stern,” Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said of the NBA commissioner. “His league has always had the best record of any professional sport in terms of minority hiring and women’s participation.”
But Rod Thorn, NBA vice president of basketball operations, said their sex was not among his criteria for selecting Kantner and Palmer, who earned their reputations in women’s college basketball.
“My charge from the commissioner is to get the best referees I possibly can,” Thorn said, referring to David Stern. “He has never indicated to me they should be of a specific gender … Obviously, since it hasn’t been done, there is a social significance. I’m not that naive. But … in my opinion, they are among the best referees I can get.”
Stern is known to have made consideration of women officials a priority even if doubts arose as to their qualifications - NBA basketball game is a much faster and more physical version of the game than they’re used to calling.
“I don’t believe they could be the most qualified of all the referees out there,” said Bulls coach Phil Jackson, a noted liberal thinker. “But I think (the NBA wants) to break the barrier. And that’s good.”
The openings came about because five veteran NBA officials have resigned or are under suspension pending resolution of a tax-fraud case involving the exchange of first-class airline tickets for coach seats and for allegedly pocketing the difference. Three male officials also have been added to the staff.
The National Hockey League and the National Football League employ all-male officiating staffs.
NBA observers say Kanter and Palmer the two have done well technically but appear a bit reluctant to call certain fouls.
“I think she’ll learn to blow the whistle a little more,” supervisor of officials Darrel Garretson said of Kantner after a recent game. “She’s still going through the growing pains, getting used to the speed of the game and the play above the rim. It’s the same thing as being a young player. The first thing that impresses you about the game is the speed.”
An NBA directive this summer ordered teams to prepare separate dressing rooms for male and female officials. But the league has yet to issue a memo on abusive language by coaches and players, which is an occupational hazard for the officiating staff.
“Chances are I’ve heard all the words before,” Kantner said.
Another issue is physical contact - in the heat of competition, some players have been known to pat an official on the bottom after a good or favorable call.
“From time to time, players will touch a referee, such as patting them on the back,” Thorn acknowledged. “We don’t have a problem with that. If somebody bumps them on purpose, (the referee) should unload on them and then let me handle it from there.”
Jackson said he had counseled Bulls forward Dennis Rodman, a noted referee-baiter, about “acceptable behavior with the women.”
Rodman, predictably, said he’d pay no heed.
“They want to be a referee, so you treat them just like a man,” he said. “If I pat them on the butt, it doesn’t mean I’m trying to get friendly with them.”
Kanter and Palmer also can expect a chilly reception from Charles Barkley, the Houston Rockets’ veteran forward who rivals Rodman as a lightning rod for controversy.
“I treat all officials the same - like dogs,” Barkley said. “It’s the principle of the thing. I don’t think women should be in the Army and I don’t think they should be NBA refs.”
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