The NBA's five full-time women referees are changing the game, but this is just the beginning

In 2014, Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling became the first woman hired as a full-time NBA official in nearly two decades. Today, there are five full-time women referees in the NBA -- the most in the league's history. AP Photo/Paul Beaty

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling remembers feeling vulnerable, but not intimidated.

It was early in Holtkamp-Sterling's young basketball officiating career, years before she'd ascend to the NBA level. The setting was a local recreation center in her home state of Missouri, where she'd previously played four years of college basketball at Drury University before becoming a referee. Holtkamp-Sterling, now 40, had just finished officiating a youth boy's game as the solo referee.

As the buzzer sounded, the father of one of the boys in the game approached and accosted her over her gender.

"[He] confronted me and told me I didn't belong there, working that game," Holtkamp-Sterling recounted years later. "In that moment, he was being very clear -- there was no micro-aggression or anything: 'I'm going to tell you exactly that I don't think you belong here doing this.'"

While that was the most overtly negative experience Holtkamp-Sterling recalls from her career, it wasn't the only one. She struggled at times with the constant demands from those she encountered, both stated and implied, to justify herself or explain her pursuit of success in a heavily male-dominated field. She heard whispers from some corners of the sport.

None of it deterred her -- in fact, quite the opposite. Her love for simply being on the basketball court fused with her desire to prove those naysayers wrong.

"While there were times it could wear on my spirit, it was also a real test of what I want to do and why it's important that I'm choosing to pursue this," Holtkamp-Sterling said of those initial struggles. "Because I answered those questions early in the process for myself, it helped me create a career that is sustaining and meaningful."

Within several years, for the 2014-15 season, Holtkamp-Sterling would become the first woman hired as a full-time NBA official in nearly two decades.

Since Holtkamp-Sterling, four more women have been hired as full-time NBA referees. Today, there are a total of five full-time women NBA referees, an all-time league high. Twenty-four of the G League's 57 referees are women, plus several who jump between the NBA and G League (all NBA officials with under four years of experience are commonly assigned as crew chief for G League games to gain experience); 15 of the WNBA's 33 referees are women, nine of whom also work games in the G League.

"In recent years, we have focused on expanding our pipeline of officials to greatly increase the pool of potential hires, and we have seen encouraging results, not only in the NBA but in the WNBA and the G League as well," Adam Silver, who became NBA commissioner in 2014, said to ESPN.

The hiring of Holtkamp-Sterling (the "Sterling" comes from Jonathan, her husband and fellow NBA referee) was a first domino of sorts with Silver's modern NBA, after almost two decades of no upward movement for women referees. It would quickly give way not only to an increase in gender diversity among officials, but to an inspiring tale of women empowerment and mentorship at the highest levels of a traditionally male field -- one full of locker room anecdotes, weekly Skype chats, group birthday vacations and a number of challenges.

"I remember learning about Dee and Violet being NBA referees," Holtkamp-Sterling said of her younger self. "Being able to see myself in them -- they trailblazed that."

The names she's invoking are Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner, the first full-time women referees to ever work in the NBA. Both entered the league fully in 1997, and Palmer, now 56, got the honor of making history when she donned the whistle for a late October game that year. (Prior to entering the league, Palmer worked as a referee in NCAA Division I women's basketball.) Kantner's NBA career was the shorter of the two, spanning until 2002 when she was released by the league. ESPN was unable to obtain comment from Kantner, 60, for this story.

These were different times. As a proud Black and LGBTQ woman, Palmer especially was a barrier-breaker in more ways than one.

And not everyone was comfortable. Those whispers Holtkamp-Sterling would hear as she entered the league years later? They were audible conversations for Palmer and Kantner, and sometimes more. Most notably, then-Celtics broadcaster Cedric Maxwell used a stunningly offensive "get back in the kitchen" line for a game Palmer was officiating in 2007 (Maxwell would later apologize).

"Did I hear it? Of course," Palmer, who retired from the NBA in 2016, said. "But did it bother me? No. None of it bothered me. They're just talking about something they're uncomfortable with."

Palmer's focus was internal. Her currency? The approval of her peers in the officiating world.

"It's no different than us watching our new Vice President [Kamala Harris]. It's no different than us watching Stacey Abrams. It's no different than us watching Oprah Winfrey...When you're seeing women aspiring, and how powerful and how smart and how good they are at whatever craft, you have to share... This is the way we can help little girls growing up." Violet Palmer

After all, she could have stayed in women's basketball, where she was one of the top officials in the college world. But she viewed the NBA as a challenge to conquer, plus she took comfort in the fact that at the time, NBA mechanics were actually pretty similar to those she was used to at the women's college level.

"I'll prove myself amongst them, so they'll look at me as just a referee," Palmer said of her mindset at the time.

She dedicated herself completely to the game, but also to earning respect just like anyone else.

"I said to the guys: 'You can curse! You can talk about the girl in the fifth row with the big ta-tas! I'm good, I'll tell you whether or not she's cute!' That doesn't bother me, because we're all just referees and we have to be able to co-mingle.

"Once [my peers] saw that I was about the business and the work and wanting to learn the craft, they were more than willing to open themselves up to teach me."

Today, Palmer counts men she worked with among her best friends. She rattles off names: Steve Javie, Jack Nies, Billy Oakes, Joey Crawford.

Tom Washington, a 30-year veteran whom Palmer names as one of her top mentors, bestowed the nickname "Queen" upon her during a group event midway through her career. It stuck for good, always as a term of endearment.

Back then, Palmer hardly had time to consider the significance of her accomplishment. It hits harder now after years of reflection. She was blown away recently when a friend referred to her as the "Jackie Robinson of officiating." It put tears in her eyes "that someone would actually put me in that class of people." Grasping it entirely is a struggle.

But Palmer and Kantner's influence on today's generation is immense and undeniable.

Simone Jelks, the first Black woman hired in this role since Palmer herself, was also one of several women to attend Palmer's yearly refereeing camps before reaching the NBA level (such camps are common in the refereeing world, both for development and scouting; Palmer's is open to all collegiate officials). Jelks views Palmer as a key mentor in multiple ways.

"Being a Black woman herself, being a trailblazer as the first African-American [woman referee] in the NBA, she understands 100% of the challenges that I face," Jelks, 35, said. "Her advice is always authentic."

Ashley Moyer-Gleich, 33, a former Millersville University college basketball player who debuted as a full-time NBA referee in 2018 after working in the WNBA, took years of mentorship from Kantner; both are from cities within an hour of each other in Pennsylvania. Looking for a way to soothe anxious nerves, she called Kantner before her first WNBA game, then again before her first NBA preseason game.

Inspiration was even easier to come by for Jenna Schroeder, 35, another former collegiate athlete who, like Holtkamp-Sterling, transitioned to the officiating side following college. Schroeder's wife, Britta Anderson, was a pioneer in her own right: Back in 2011, with virtually no women in similar positions whatsoever, she was hired as the associate team physician for MLB's Detroit Tigers -- a role she still occupies today.

"I always had that mentor, a role model on how to be successful in a male-dominated field," Schroeder said. "She taught me how to carry myself, how to be comfortable being the only woman in the room all the time.

"She'll always say, if I did it, you can do it. [She's] always been my biggest role model. Because I've seen it done before."

Natalie Sago, 31, a 2018 addition to the league, had a birthright motivating her: Her father, Dr. Shelton Sago, was a 35-year high school official in Missouri, a local legend in both basketball and football. The two even got to officiate two high school games together, a moment that seems like yesterday in her memory even as she's gone on to call contests in both the WNBA and NBA.

When it comes to mentors within the officiating world, though, it all comes back to the paths forged before them. Palmer and Kantner were so much more than just trailblazers; the weight they shouldered eased the burden for all who came after.

"She did it way before all of us, before the world we live in now that's all accepting," Moyer-Gleich said of Kantner. "Dee did it in a day where I'm sure she didn't have that support."

Was the buffer Palmer and Kantner created an impenetrable one? Certainly not. Those who followed them still faced real challenges. Moyer-Gleich tells multiple stories of NBA security staff confusing her for a cheerleader or a referee's wife when she entered the building to officiate games; to varying degrees, her peers have similar experiences.

None attempt to discount their own burdens that they overcame. Still, there's unanimous agreement that without the groundwork laid by the two trendsetters before them, the path would have been rockier.

"I feel very grateful that there were people before me to have experienced the initial pushback of what it's like being a female in a male-driven world," Jelks said.

While Palmer and Kantner are no longer working for the NBA, their legacies live on.

Holtkamp-Sterling has become a big sister figure to the other women in the program. "Middle child" is perhaps more fitting; as the only one of the five, current full-time women in the league with a direct connection to the Palmer/Kantner days. And as the first to reach this plateau since, she's turned around and served a similarly important role for those following her.

"Lauren took about six of us under her wing a couple summers ago," Sago said. "Once or twice a week in the summer, we would get on a Skype call and spend an hour or two hours talking rules, talking scenarios, situations.

"She really did an awesome job of reaching out to us and saying, 'Hey, I really want to start this group. I would love for you guys to be a part of it.' I thought that was awesome. I was totally fan-girling. I grew up watching her."

Skype chats gave way to lengthy group texts, including several that persist to this day. Included aren't just the five women who have achieved full-time NBA status, but also many more working their way up through the G League or WNBA training ranks.

Officiating is ostensibly the main subject, and certainly a common thread. Just as meaningful, though, is the broader support structure that's been created. Five women officials is a step up from one or two, but still represents a minuscule percentage of the league's 65 total referees. Lifelong bonds have been formed within this group. Several of the full-timers are close friends off the court. Sago, Holtkamp-Sterling, Schroeder and Moyer-Gleich were all on-hand in Clearwater, Florida to celebrate Sago's 30th birthday a couple summers ago (Jelks wasn't yet a full-time official).

"We are a very empowered group of women," Jelks said. "One of our successes is all of our successes ... When we see three females working the G League together, we're empowered, we're inspired. When we see one referee get some type of accolade, we highlight it on our pages on social media.

"It's needed for women in this industry that already have a lot of things going against them. It's needed that we strengthen each other emotionally, and just have that good support team."

Those inside the program aren't the only ones seeing this progress anymore, either. These women, who collectively had precious few female sports icons as children, now recognize their own role in inspiring a future generation.

Schroeder said she'd love to see her daughter take up officiating when she grows up -- although she joked her wife, Anderson, may represent the more lucrative career path as a physician. All five women said they'd absolutely recommend refereeing both men's and women's basketball to any young woman with the drive and dedication.

Jelks describes people telling her that their daughters tune into NBA games she works and won't even focus on the players; their eyes only on her. Moyer-Gleich recounts similar experiences.

"I see little girls sitting courtside, parents asking me to take a picture with their little daughter," Moyer-Gleich said. "Those girls get to see me on this platform, working with men in a male-dominated field."

There's no jealousy here, no bitterness over an "easier" path faced by today's young women. There's simply a desire to make this world, and others like it, more accessible.

"Kids have to see that things are possible," Jelks said. "And it's even better when the things they see are possible look like them."

Areas like these come to the forefront as the NBA continues to strive for an earned reputation as a progressive organization.

The league is ahead of its peers here, although progress must be viewed relatively. Five full-time women in officiating today eclipses the total of the NFL, MLB and NHL combined. As of last season, 11 different women were employed in assistant coaching positions around the NBA. Strides are being made, even if we're still talking about small percentages of the overall population and more work is clearly needed.

To its credit, the NBA hasn't been satisfied at simply hitting numerical targets for the sake of appearance -- although no one's saying it's been perfect, either. There aren't many great answers for why 17 years passed between women being hired, for instance, although it's understandable why those at the top of today's league prefer to look forward. To that effect, there have been real efforts toward promoting equality and diversity within the officiating ranks, the sort that may not make headlines but truly advance a progressive agenda.

Consider a theme like locker rooms. The NBA has made significant alterations since Palmer and Kantner's day, where the league would have to improvise a makeshift women's locker room in arenas that weren't prepared for them. Those changes include separate dedicated locker rooms for women officials. Today, though, this is frankly the bare minimum; no one in the league office is patting themselves on the back for simply keeping up with the times.

Rather, they've tried to go further. When Holtkamp-Sterling returned to officiating after giving birth in 2019, the league had arranged specific accommodations for her as its first-ever mother to officiate a game.

"[The NBA] worked closely with me to make sure that the locker room was where I needed it to be as a nursing mother," Holtkamp-Sterling said. "Here we are in a very male-dominated space, and the league was very proactive to make sure I had what I needed."

And to the people who run the NBA's officiating program, efforts in recent years to open recruiting pathways and increase diversity are far from merely symbolic: They're practical for a league always striving to improve. They allow the league's scouts to evaluate larger swaths of the population and identify greater cumulative talent.

"This isn't, 'Let's go out and do social work,'" Monty McCutchen, NBA's vice president of referee development and training, said. "And I say that very positively. The women that are coming on the scene now are helping us -- we're not helping them."

The initiative is one that comes straight from the top of the NBA hierarchy. The NBA, like the society it's part of, inches ever closer to true equity. But no one, not by a long shot, thinks the work is done.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't have more women as officials, coaches and basketball executives in our league," Silver said.

Legitimate acceptance has come in waves. Palmer recalls all the media hubbub that surrounded her and Kantner when they entered the league; when Holtkamp-Sterling did the same 17 years later, there was hardly so much as a press release -- something Palmer delighted in seeing. "It's almost normal now. It's not a big deal anymore," she remembers thinking.

More than anything, it's that normalcy that today's women NBA referees aspire to. All parties involved can talk about themes like equality until they're blue in the face, but the truest mark of that state is actually when it's not a constant discussion topic. Young women shouldn't have to look at officiating, or so many other traditionally male-dominated professions, as rarified air for only the chosen few. These goals are attainable now in ways they just couldn't have been even a generation prior.

Palmer and Kantner smashed this barrier; those who came after them are trying to stomp on its remains.

"They say I'm the sixth female referee in the NBA," said Schroeder, the sixth woman officially hired as a full-time NBA referee. "I just hope one day we can stop counting. There won't be a number anymore. It'll just be the norm."