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NBA Breaks New Ground by Hiring Female Referees

Sports: Selection of the pair is hailed by women's and officials' groups. Privately, some players are skeptical.

October 29, 1997|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Breaking a long-standing barrier in American major league sports, the National Basketball Assn. announced Tuesday that it had hired two women, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer, to work as referees in the all-male league.

Kantner and Palmer were among five officials added to the NBA's 58-member staff. Seven other referees, who also worked games on a tryout basis during the exhibition season, were cut.

NBA Vice President Rod Thorn said of Palmer and Kantner: "They've gotten better each time out. Just like the other referees, they've come back from the summer, had training camp and preseason and have gotten used to being out there."

Kantner, 36, of Charlotte, N.C., was the supervisor of officials this summer for the inaugural season of the Women's National Basketball Assn. and has worked NBA Summer League games. She also refereed four women's NCAA championship games, including the 1997 Tennessee-Old Dominion matchup.

Palmer, 33, a Carson resident, also officiated in the WNBA, in the NBA Summer League and in college women's games.

In keeping with league policy, the NBA would not say where or when they would work their first games, or any ensuing games, for that matter. Nor would the NBA make Kantner and Palmer accessible to the media until a planned news conference Wednesday. The season opens Friday.

The move was hailed by women's and referees' groups and received diplomatically by most NBA personnel.

"I don't think gender has anything to do with who's a competent official," Laker Executive Vice President Jerry West said. "This will be a closely watched event and a great coup for the NBA."

Barry Mano, president of the National Assn. of Sports Officials, said: "I think it's terrific. They're two skillful referees who have paid their dues over the years. I think it's a great opportunity. It will be a challenge but I think they're up to it. . . .

"I think some NBA referees will be accepting, some will be neutral and some will not be accepting, frankly. There are NBA referees who have male friends who are toiling in the [the minor league Continental Basketball Assn.].

"That's always the way it is in refereeing; regardless of what decision is made, there's always someone who feels he has a prior right to a job."

The move, which has been in the works for months--with league officials all but announcing the women would be hired--was privately regarded with skepticism by some players.

"I hope they don't bring 'em," the Houston Rockets' Charles Barkley said after Kantner officiated a recent game amid ribald joking from the bench that could be heard on press row.

"That's my opinion. I don't have to give you a reason why. I treat all officials the same--like dogs. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I just hope they don't have women officials. It's the principle of the thing. I wouldn't want a man doing a WNBA game."

Major League Baseball considered female umpires, but passed on Pam Postema, who worked minor-league games from 1977 to 1988. She filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit, which is still pending.

Bernice Gera became the first woman umpire to work in professional baseball in 1972, but retired after one game in the New York-Penn League after an argument with a manager. The National Football League and the National Hockey League have always had all-male crews.

Kantner and Palmer have officiated NBA exhibition games, largely without incident, for two seasons. Like everyone else, they will work in three-member crews, which eases a newcomer's entry, although the women will face special scrutiny.

"I think we recognize they'll be in an even more intense spotlight, refereeing our games," said NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik.

"We owe it to our teams and our fans to hire the best people we can hire. If two women who came up the rungs as they have, who have officiated at every level, are the next best to be called up, we have to do whatever we can to handle the spotlight and the pressure. They're entitled to have that opportunity."

Kantner recently wrote an article for Sports Illustrated for Women, and in it she anticipated the reaction if she were promoted to the NBA.

"When I officiated my first preseason NBA game, between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers last fall, broadcasters Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn wondered how I could possibly endure all the bad language I must hear on the court," Kantner wrote. "My mother, who was watching at home in Reading, Pa., just about fell out of her chair. She thought, Are they kidding? Like that woman's never heard it before!

". . . I've only ejected a player once. That happened on the second day of my first year in the NBA Summer League in '95. I had called a foul on a player and he said it was a '[expletive] call.' So I gave him a technical. He looked at me and said, 'What's a [expletive] woman doing on the floor, anyway?'

"I just said, 'You're gone.'

"Of course, in my head, I'm thinking, 'What am I doing here?' "

In Chicago, the NBA champion Bulls took the news in stride.

"If they can referee, they can referee, no matter what sex they are," Michael Jordan said.

Coach Phil Jackson said, "I don't believe they could be the most qualified of all the referees out there, but I think they [NBA] want to break the barrier and that's good."

The ever-controversial Dennis Rodman repeated his vow to pat the new referees on their backsides as, he notes, he has done to male officials. Jackson has said he will instruct Rodman that such behavior is no longer acceptable.

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NBA PREVIEW: A look at the Lakers, Clippers and the rest of the NBA, which opens Friday. Section S

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