Female officials Q&A Part 2: Women’s empowerment

This season has seen a record 7 female referees officiate at least one game in the NBA.

Julia Adams & Mason Leib

Jenna Schroeder (left) and Natalie Sago made history as the first female NBA referees to officiate the same game.

This season, there have been a record 7 female NBA referees who officiated at least one game. The second section of a two-part interview is focused on women’s empowerment. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In January, the NBA saw its first two-woman ref crew with Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder. How meaningful was this moment to you as a fellow female official? 

Ashley Moyer-Gleich: Oh, my gosh. I was so happy and proud of them. … With breaking those barriers — to feel like you have a community that’s supporting you, is what’s going to give you the competence to go out and shine. That’s what those two ladies did that night. They really were exemplary role models of what the NBA is pushing in terms of putting the best referees on a game doesn’t matter what gender. 

Then, for them being able to take that kind of publicity and the pressure, I’m sure that they felt it doing that game and doing it well and being excellent. I’m just so proud of them. I’m close friends with both of them, so I’m honored to work with them and to be a part of their journey. That’s going to go down in history now for them working that game. It just was really amazing to be able to support them during that time.

Danica Mosher: Honestly, it was awesome. When I was growing up, my mom didn’t really harp on my gender. She just said, if you want it, go get it. But now that I’m older and social media is the thing you look at and you’re like, dang, women, aren’t getting as many opportunities. So when I saw two women on a game, I was like, ‘Holy heck, this is history.’ And I get to watch it. I don’t normally watch basketball, I try to stay away from basketball when I’m at home so I can focus on life [outside of the game]. But I tuned in at night just because it was just so inspiring to see them on the floor and like, wow, I can’t believe this hasn’t happened. It’s awesome that they get to be the first ones to do it. You’re happy in the moment – and then you’re like, dang, I can’t wait to see three females on the floor. 

Simone Jelks: Oh, it was great. It was awesome. I think I was probably more excited than they were. I was sending them all types of gifs and funny images. I was like, ‘This is huge.’ It’s not just one of us out there. It’s two of us, so we’re not going anywhere. Get used to these faces. Get used to these ponytails. We’re here.

Danielle Scott: This was a huge moment – not only for our sport before our league. It was fun watching them out there doing their thing. I’m certain that one day the NBA is going to have an all-female crew. I hope that at some point women officiating men’s sports will become the norm at all levels.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling: I was so excited for them. I was excited for them personally because they’re my friends, and I was excited for them professionally because it was such an important moment in our profession and on a wider scale. I’m excited about what it means for our profession moving forward. It was this really important moment that happened in the middle of a really difficult season as we’re navigating COVID – [including] what it means to do this work and do it safely. It was a really good, bright spot in an otherwise challenging season.

Natalie Sago: It was very meaningful [to work that game with Jenna Schroeder]. It’s a big deal. We always say, hopefully, one day we’ll get to the point where it’s not as big of a deal. When you see three of us women out there on a game if that will just become the new normal, but it was super. It was an awesome day and it was super fun to be out there with Jenna. 

All of the congratulatory text messages and social media posts that we got from, not only our family and friends, but our colleagues and other stars out there in the world. I mean, Billie Jean King tweeted about us. Megan Rapinoe wrote on her Instagram about us. Other powerful women took notice, and it was something that was blown up on the social media platforms. It was just a really special day and evening with Jenna.

Jenna Schroeder: It was definitely a wonderful experience. Looking back, it was, thus far, the highlight of my professional career. Just doing that with Natalie – [we] used to referee college basketball together. We’ve known each other for a long time and we’ve actually worked together before in the G League, WNBA, and obviously in college. 

It meant the world to me because I think seeing is believing. I could see Lauren [Holtkamp-Sterling] and I wanted to be that. I feel like other women around the world can see us. They might not think about being a referee, but, hopefully, it encourages other women and other industries to keep pushing the barriers. I hope that gives them the strength to keep going.

International Women’s Day – Jenna Schroeder and Natalie Sago

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate Jenna Schroeder and Natalie Sago, who were the first two female officials to officiate the same NBA game.

It’s such a positive thing for the NBA, too. It brought people watching that didn’t watch before. The NBA platform is so huge and I didn’t even realize how huge it was. [Games are broadcast] in over 200 countries. In the United States, we’re tipping the iceberg of gender equality. But can you imagine these other countries where they don’t even know what gender equality is? [For] a woman [in a country] where there is no such thing as gender equality can see two other women on the highest stage in basketball. Seeing is believing in it. I hope it empowers people.

 

Seven female officials have worked games so far this season, which is the most to work games in any season in league history. What does it mean to have the NBA’s support in developing female officials?

Sago: It’s amazing. It shouldn’t matter about our race, gender, ethnicity. It’s really powerful that we work for a company that supports us and pushes us. Jenna always uses this little term – vision is everything, seeing is believing. Putting us out there on one of the biggest platforms in the world with the best athletes in the world is a really big thing. For younger girls and women to see that and to show them that, ‘Hey, I could do this.’ Just to show them that they can do anything that they want and get into a male-dominated business. They can do it. It’s really cool to work for a company that is pushing females and that they really believe in us that we can do the job just like the men can.

Holtkamp-Sterling: The NBA is a leader in so many ways with both social justice and recognizing that the league can use its position as a sports leader to help create equity for so many people that historically have been denied those opportunities. I feel really proud to be part of a league that is on the front end of so many social justice fights.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling looks on during a Nets-Rockets game

Jelks: It’s huge. We can’t do what we do out there on the floor without the support, without them knowing that in the back rooms where the opinions matter the most with our bosses, that they support us 100 percent. It is huge to know that we are supported.

Mosher: It’s great to have that platform and [the league] provides that. When I first started, I wanted to work in men’s basketball. The first college camp I went to, they said, ‘No, you have to work women’s college basketball.’ I was like, wait, what? I can’t go to the men’s camps? So, it’s great that professional basketball allows it to be equal and let you even have the opportunity to do it. Some people [in other industries] are a little far behind in that aspect. I’m very grateful that the NBA lets us do that. 

Schroeder: I would not want to work for a company that didn’t support me. The reasons I work for the NBA are because of my ideals with gender equality, racial equality, and sexual orientation equality. That’s something that means a lot to me. If the NBA did not do that I would not work for them.

Scott: It’s amazing to be a part of an organization that’s leading the way and giving women the opportunity to showcase our skills in a professional men’s sport. I’m grateful for the women who’ve come before me and laid the foundation. We will continue their work for the women who come after us.

What advice have you shared with girls or women who want to become officials?

Sago: Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. If you have a goal and a dream, go tackle it because at this day and age, if you have the ability to do it, you should be able to be awarded that job opportunity and be able to do it.

Holtkamp-Sterling: Oh, I say go for it. I think that they should follow their passion. They love the sport and are willing to put the work in, the time in and trust that they can develop the skills they can do it. I would say if anybody’s even remotely interested in trying it to go for it because it’s a really rewarding career.

Moyer-Gleich: Oh, my biggest advice — that’s a tough question. When I was going to the [G-League] try-out, George Tolliver had everyone in the room write down their goal in a notebook. My goal was to be a sponge. My goal was never to be a G League referee, even though that’s what I wanted. My goal was never to be in the WNBA or my goal was never to be an NBA official. I just wanted to be the best referee that I could be. I wanted to be a sponge and just soak up all the knowledge and wisdom. Anything that anyone was willing to offer me I just wanted to be able to soak it up. That would probably be my biggest piece of advice.

Whether you get cheers or accolades, a lot of it’s out of your control. It’s important to just remember to control what you can control. Go out there with that mindset of wanting to be the best referee, whatever is your journey. If you can enjoy the journey along the way, then it makes it all worth it at the end of the day.

Jelks: Be yourself. This industry is really competitive. In male-dominated industries like this, it’s easy to try to emulate other people. Try to think this is the way to make it to the top, but the only way to find success when you’re at the top is to be truthful to who you are. Embrace who you are and that will shine in all of your work.

Mosher: I have a few females that message me every so often. I just tell them to be you. Don’t be afraid to pursue men’s basketball. Who cares who you piss off in the process? If that’s your goal, go and get it. If you’re good, [the NBA] will find you, they’ll let you work and you can do it. Pursue your passions really is what I tell them.

Dannica Mosher working Wizards vs. Nuggets

Schroeder: Be yourself because everyone else is taken. I wouldn’t want to work for a company who didn’t want me for me, if I couldn’t just be my genuine, authentic self and be who I am and they can’t accept that. That’s probably not a good fit for anybody. You need to keep it moving, and find something that is a good fit. 

I believe in gender equality and racial equality. If the company you work for appreciates that, then you’re in the right spot. And if they don’t, maybe you’re not in the right spot.

Scott: When I have these talks with the young ladies, I tell them to study their rules and mechanics because that’ll give them confidence while they’re out there on the floor. Work as many games as you can. Work on a couple of things each game. Find someone you can trust to send plays to and get advice from. And I stress the importance of finding that balance between officiating your personal life, just so you don’t get burnt out and you stay fresh.

What is the shared experience between you and the other female officials in the league?

Sago: We have a great group. We text all the time – we’re in a group chain. There’s not many of us, so we need to have our girl talk sometimes, too. We really push each other and we just want everyone to be successful. It shouldn’t be a competition. I want success for all these other women that are with me right now, and then the ones that are coming in after us. We have a great group of us girls. We do vacations together in the summer —so we’re really close and tight-knit.

Holtkamp-Sterling: First and foremost, it’s friendship. There’s a bond for us about going through the training system and then being on the staff together. We support each other. We encourage each other. Knowing that we’re in it together and can learn from each other’s experience and lean on each other when we need it has been huge.

Jelks: Our experience as women have brought us close together. It’s more than just officiating between us women. It is a lifestyle that we have chosen that we have to have. We have to find strength and a lot more to keep us going and we provide that to each other. I’m so happy that the women on this staff are in the business of empowering other women.

Moyer-Gleich: It’s kind of natural. You’re going to gravitate towards a group of people who kind of have similar views and align with your personality, whether that’s male or female, but I think all of us being women on the staff and because there are so few of us, I think it’s just kind of natural for us to have an immediate connection just so that we can lean on each other. There are things that you can talk woman to woman that you can’t really talk to a man about or how are you going to handle a certain situation that men don’t really have to deal with. 

It’s nice to have that support system and encouragement if one of us is down or sick. Two women have children, and if their children are sick or they’re missing being at home with their kids, it’s nice to have other women who can understand what you’re going through. I think it’s important for us to foster those relationships and stay tight-knit because, at the end of the day, we’re going to be supportive and encouraging one another.

Schroeder: We’re actually all pretty close. We go on vacations together. … There are five full-time women and two non-staff. We should help each other out – that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to empower other women. We definitely need each other to lean on. We have different experiences than the men do. We have fans telling us to go back to the kitchen and saying crazy things to it. Men don’t get that, so we need each other to lean on in those circumstances.

Womens History Month - NBA Official, Jenna Schroeder

Official Jenna Schroeder describes a captivating scenario that illustrates why she loves her job.

Scott: It’s really cool because we’ve all kind of been on our separate journeys in our individual careers, and now we’ve all come together within this association and we’re making history this season. I am just super grateful for the memories that we’ve made so far and all the moments still to come with this group of ladies.

In celebrating Women’s History Month, who is a woman that you most admire?

Holtkamp-Sterling: My mother. [She] is just an incredible woman who finds a way to balance all of the things in her life that mean a lot to her.

Sago: Just to stick with like officiating, Lauren [Holtkamp-Sterling] has been a big role model for me personally, and I know some of the other girls probably have that answer as well. 

Before I got hired, we were going to Summer League and I was in the WNBA. She texted a few of us and we started a little study group [on official rules]. She talked about her experiences and  everything about being an NBA referee. 

I really commend Lauren for taking some of us under her wing and really showing us the ropes, because she was out there by herself for a few years before Ashley and I got hired together. I just thought that was really big of her. You can just see she loves what she does and she’s such a great leader and I can’t thank her enough for doing that and taking us under her wing and just wanting nothing but success for all of us.

Jelks: Along with my mom, I would say our Vice President of the United States [Kamala Harris].

Moyer-Gleich: The woman I admire most is my mom. She is my rock and my role model. She is incredible. She’s not only my mom, but she’s my best friend. She’s my confidant, who talks to me while I’m stuck in the airport for our delays; who talks to me when I have to buy every single dinner in my hotel room because of COVID she sits and has dinner with me on FaceTime. She is definitely my biggest supporter and encourager, and she is everything that I want to be one day when I’m a mom.

Mosher: I’m going to give the cliche answer, but I really think it’s true: my mother. She raised two children in a very small town, low income by herself, and pushed me to strive for my goals. She’s the one I look up to and what I do, I do it for her. It’s cliche, but I give it to my mom.

Schroeder: I gathered [admiration] straight from women who came before me. I think Women’s History Month is a time where we have to appreciate the people who came before us. We have to encourage other women who are fighting this gender equality battle right now. Then, we have to empower women who are going to come behind us in the future to keep fighting this battle.

Scott: I’ve always loved Tamera Mowry-Housley and she’s kind of been like someone, I looked up to my whole life. She’s very caring and no matter what happens in her life, she always handles and gets through it gracefully. And she marches to the beat of her own drum and is a free spirit and I can really resonate with that because it’s kind of like me.

What progress have you seen in female representation around the game over the past few years?

Holtkamp-Sterling: There’s just been wonderful momentum. As the WNBA players have gotten more media exposure that they deserve, and into [the NBA] where you see women being hired in front office positions and coaching positions. You see that happening for us on the referee staff. I think across sports, there is just an incredible wave of momentum towards recognizing that women have been doing incredible work for a really long time.

Jelks: I see it in a lot of different aspects. I’m seeing more female broadcasters, and sideline reporters that are female. When I get to the game two hours earlier, I’m seeing more female sports trainers. I’m seeing more female sports psychologists that work for the teams. We’re popping up everywhere. I see female security guards. I always get excited when I see a female, no matter what their role is in the arena. There’s always this communal sense of like, ‘I’m glad you’re here’.

Moyer-Gleich: Over the past few years, you’ve seen Becky Hammon have opportunities. And on the coaching side, there’ve been several women who’ve been promoted in front-office positions like Alyson Feaster with the Boston Celtics and Kristi Toliver in an assistant coaching role with Washington. 

Coupled with Natalie and me, and then Jenna and Simone getting hired [in the NBA], you have [referee] Sarah Thomas with the NFL in her first Super Bowl. You have Maya [Chaka] who just got hired now as the second female [referee] to be in the NFL. The progression of women being on that big stage of professional sports. I heard a quote: If you can see it and you can be it. I think it’s important that if little girls can turn on the television and see women doing NFL games and women officiating NBA games, then that gives them the hopes and dreams that they can be it.

Mosher: It’s crazy to see, but it’s well-deserved like Becky [Hammon] and all the assistants that are coming up. Even in [the NFL] with Sarah Thomas being the first female Super Bowl official. You’re seeing more and more because it’s social media. Women are getting these opportunities, like Renee Montgomery owning a WNBA team. All the social justice [initiatives] that the women are doing in the WNBA. It’s just crazy to see, but social media is highlighting it. It’s a domino effect and that will just keep going. It’s empowering because when I was growing up you didn’t know those things. Now you see it and you’re like, wow, it is an opportunity for us. It’s achievable, let’s go get it. I hope to see more, but it’s very empowering for lack of a better word.

Scott: Since there’ve been more women working[in the game], players and coaches see us more on a regular basis. It’s allowed repoire to be developed between all sides. When you open up the lines of communication for everyone, that’s always a positive thing. It’s great to see how far it’s progressed in the right direction. 

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