In the beginning, back in 1997, there were two: Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner.
Then, five years later, there was one: Palmer. When she retired in 2016 after her 18-season career, it was back to one: Lauren Holtkamp.
But now, in 2021-22, the NBA has six female referees on its full-time officiating staff, the most ever. With four more working on a part-time basis and two fill-ins from the NBA G League, the league has a dozen women on call to make calls on any given night.
Not that anyone is counting or, at least, needs to be.
“It’s really satisfying to say, ‘We don’t have to go and search for women referees,’” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president, head of referee development and training. “All we have to do is find the best referees — and open our eyes to half of the population.”
The six full-timers are Natalie Sago, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Simone Jelks, Jenna Schroeder, Danielle Scott and Holtkamp-Sterling (married to fellow NBA ref Jonathan Sterling). They make up 8% of the 75-member officiating staff. Add four from the list of nine part-timers and the share of female refs bumps to 12%. And as McCutchen points out, 42% of G League referees are women.
But again, that’s counting. And that’s not where the NBA or any other meritocracy wants to be if its goal is to have the most talented, hardest-working members get the most opportunities and rise highest.
That only works if there are sufficient aspirants to form a true competitive pool of candidates. And that is where the NBA has been busy in recent years.
“It does take time to develop officials,” McCutchen said. “So my predecessors recognized this and put those seeds into the G League. Now we’re bearing the fruit of this.”
Could this have come sooner? Probably. But neither supply nor demand were what they are now. The referees had to be ready and so did the players, coaches and fans.
“I’m sure we would have been open to it,” said Sam Perkins, forward/center who played for four teams from 1984 to 2001 and is now the treasurer for the National Basketball Retired Players Association. “It’s just that they weren’t there to be recognized as a referee.”
Fast forward to 2022, Sago worked the Suns-Bucks game Sunday in Milwaukee, where Phoenix coach Monty Williams dismissed any notion that female refs might cause a game’s texture or tone to be different.
McCutchen said the league has no data indicating referees are challenged more or less based on gender. Any player or coach would be ill-advised to go there.
“I see the competitive spirit of coaches treating everyone the same,” he said. “I don’t notice whether coaches are ‘hands off.’ I haven’t seen any [bullying]. Our women officials give technical fouls at the same rate as anyone else.”
Said Williams: “I hope one day we’ll be able to look at them as officials instead of a lady official or a male official.”
In this particular business, that’s one of the loftiest goals of diversity: Sameness.
NBA.com spoke with each of the six women to learn more about their unique journeys to the league:
The first time Jenna Schroeder was booed by 40,000 NBA fans as she exited the court, she knew she had finally made it. “It’s not uncommon, to be honest with you,” Schroeder said with a laugh.
Long before she was hired in the NBA, the Flint, Mich., native didn’t know that refereeing could be a full-time job. She was working a high school AAU tournament one weekend when a bystander approached her with a simple question: Why don’t you do this for a living?
“I had absolutely no idea you could be a referee and make a living out of it. And to this day, I don’t think people know that that’s actually a thing.”
Not only that, but the grind to becoming a professional referee requires true dedication. During one year of Schroeder’s journey, she worked seven days a week for six months straight. On top of that, she’s getting as many reps as she possibly can at various levels and navigating up to four different sets of rulebooks, depending on her schedule.
“I wanted to do as many games as I could to prepare me to work in the NBA. And this is not a skill you can learn overnight.”
Now in her third NBA season, she feels this is a whole new grind in comparison to her journey but there is no place else she would rather be. Schroeder explains the disparities within the NCAA when women officials were not being paid the same as the men and how that growing theme troubled her.
“My ideals completely match up with the NBA’s and I think it would be difficult to work for a company if your ideals didn’t and I just feel very fortunate that they believe in everything I believe in.”
As a lifelong hooper and collegiate player, Ashley Moyer-Gleich knows first-hand about those frustrating moments during a game, like when a whistle is blown against her or not getting a call after thinking she was fouled. But when she made the transition from basketball player to basketball referee, her perspective on those tough moments shifted dramatically. “You really don’t know until you sit down and read a rule book,” says Moyer-Gleich.
“But, it’s hard for someone who’s a player to sit down and read the rule book and understand it because it’s so … it’s not relatable to how a player understands the game.”
In terms of explaining certain officiating calls during live games, Moyer-Gleich uses her past experience as a player to translate and articulate the rule book into basketball jargon that players and coaches will understand.
When she’s not working a game or traveling to the next city, the four-year NBA official remains dedicated to the league 24-7 from studying film to communicating with her associates. Even while on maternity leave, she’s locked into games every single night, which now she gets to do with her son by her side.
New to motherhood — another around-the-clock job — Moyer-Gleich remembers getting hired in 2018 as the “jumping-off point” for the league, which has now been a domino effect of more women coming through the officiating pipeline.
“We’re capable and not just capable but like beyond excellent and can do the job just as well as our male counterparts.”
As a young girl, the basketball court was one of the only places where Simone Jelks could simply be herself. A native of Cleveland, a city she describes as being filled with “underdog energy and soul,” her family relocated to the suburbs where Jelks, like many teenagers, yearned to fit in among her peers. “I [grew up] admiring Allen Iverson because I felt like he was just so unapologetically himself, despite what society or what the basketball community thought of him, good or bad,” says Jelks.
A multi-dimensional, hard-working woman, Jelks played collegiate basketball at USC and is a certified foreign language K-12 educator. Her “expediated” journey, as she describes, to the NBA began by navigating a very competitive, male-dominated, officiating industry where she quickly moved up the referee ladder.
“I feel like women, especially women in male-dominated industries, always in the back of our heads, there’s a little space, no matter how well we are doing, like ‘Am I good enough?’ and the answer will always be yes.”
Women officials are often generalized as being “too sensitive” when they don’t tolerate or permit certain forms of disrespect on the court. Jelks describes one of the many attributes of being a great NBA official is holding players and coaches accountable for their actions.
“And if it were male officials, you wouldn’t call them sensitive.”
Jelks, along with her female counterparts, don’t pay much attention to what fans or critics have to say and know they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their esteemed skillset.
“I haven’t worked as hard in my life ever at a job, then I’ve worked in the NBA as a referee.”
Working her first NBA game in 2019, Jelks remembers an unprompted conversation with a player who approached her at center court, shook her hand and said ‘Welcome to the League. I’m so happy for you.’
All that self-affirmation has finally come full circle.
While standing on the free-throw extended line during a timeout, Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling recalls a quiet yet powerful moment early in her NBA officiating career. A camera crew came out to the floor to film the in-arena entertainment and there was a woman videographer who approached her and said, “I am really glad that you’re here.”
“It was that support and recognition that both of us were sort of in the space that women aren’t typically in and that we were sort of bolstered by seeing each other there, doing the work,” said Holtkamp-Sterling.
She is the league’s longest-tenured woman official. The other five women officials speak highly and graciously of her and look to her as a mentor as well as a trailblazer for referees. But Holtkamp-Sterling believes she’s the one paying homage and praises Palmer and Kantner for breaking barriers as the first two women officials in the NBA.
“I think when I got hired, that had its own sort of significance and same for all the women after me. As our numbers are increasing, that sort of noteworthiness is becoming more about this collective experience and collective momentum that is here and that’s just really, really rewarding.”
Holtkamp-Sterling finds comfort in having close working relationships with other NBA officials. And despite having to transcend this gendered space, the officials recognize that the job of refereeing is not actually gendered work.
As the NBA continues to normalize the notion of women officials in this male-dominated space, Holtkamp-Sterling is confident the league is moving in the right direction.
Natalie Sago didn’t watch much NBA basketball growing up. Instead, the Farmington, Mo., native spent most of her time traveling with her dad, a high school and collegiate basketball referee for 35-plus years, to all of his games and tournaments.
That’s where she remembers watching Candace Parker with Tennessee, and Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird with UConn. Sago would eventually work with all three superstars during her path to the NBA, which included stops at various levels including high school college, the G League and the WNBA.
“They congratulated me for getting hired and being in the WNBA, I was like, that’s crazy because I was watching you guys when I was 12 years old and now we’re working together.”
Sago says she will always praise the WNBA for helping prepare her for the NBA.
Although she considers herself a basketball junkie, the former collegiate softball player is also a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and follows the sport closely. She would love to see the MLB bring women into the umpire ranks, just as the NBA has demonstrated with its own officials throughout the years.
“I think that the NBA is very visual and they’ve done a great job of showing that. I love that I’m a part of an organization that hires you based on if you can do the job and based on your skills. It’s not based on your gender, race or ethnicity.”
While the NBA continues to be at the forefront of providing more opportunities for women officials, other leagues such as the NFL and the American Hockey Association (the NHL’s minor league affiliate) have taken strides in recent years with hiring their first women officials.
“I commend those women [in hockey] because first of all, you have to know how to skate, and I would be out there busting my butt trying to do that,” Sago said with a laugh.
First-year NBA official Danielle Scott views her rookie season the same as any player entering the league would: an adjustment. From pace of play to call selectivity, Scott’s transition from the G League, to the WNBA and now to the NBA has been a whirlwind but she’s enjoying the learning process. “We [officials] are human, too. So, we make mistakes out there on the floor, but the main thing is we have to just move on and reset.”
“For me, if something goes wrong or if I can do something better, I look at the clock, then memorize the time on the game clock and time on the shot clock and just reset.”
Scott credits her colleagues for helping to guide her throughout this first year as a full-time ref. Whether they are sharing experiences from their rookie seasons or answering any of her questions, she finds comfort knowing she can trust her peers in any situation.
Scott has spent much of her first year in the league building rapport with the players and teams. With the second half of the 2021-22 season well underway, she’s now starting to develop those relationships as she gets more reps across the league.
“We all started somewhere. We’ve all been rookies, whether you’re a coach, a player or a referee. Our paths are all different but we all got to the same end goal.”
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Michaela Gilmer is an Interactive Producer for NBA.com
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