Violet Palmer Biography

Professional basketball referee

Born c. 1964, in Compton, CA; daughter of James and Gussie Palmer. Education: Attended California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA.

Addresses: Home —Los Angeles, CA.


Coached high school basketball; referee for recreation leagues, high schools, and colleges; referee for the Women's National Basketball Association; began training to be a National Basketball Association referee, 1994; referee for National Basketball Association, 1997—.


As a rarity in professional sports, a female referee, Violet Palmer had her critics when she began in the National Basketball Association in 1997. One of them was Charles Barkley. "This is a man's game. It should stay that way," said Barkley, then of the Houston Rockets, today an analyst with Turner Network Television, and under any circumstance one of the mouthier subjects in professional sports.

But later her first season, she encountered Barkley after working a game in Houston. "Violet, I was wrong about you. I apologize," he said. "You're all right with me." Barkley then pointed to the two male officials. "You're better than him and him," he said.

Violet Palmer

Out of uniform, Palmer looks unassuming, Vanessa Juarez wrote in Newsweek. "She reminds you of Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts, a pal you'd like to hang out with. But once the curtain goes up, she's all business. Palmer's curtain is a basketball tipoff, her stage is the court and her craft is to make sure the ten giants stampeding around her aren't out of bounds. She keeps them in line with a stern poker face and an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules."

Palmer broke into the NBA as one of two female referees. (The NBA has since fired the other, Dee Kantner, for what it said was substandard performance; she now works in the Women's National Basketball Association). By then, Palmer's grounding in basketball was solid. She grew up in a sports family in the hard-edged Compton section of Los Angeles, played for two NCAA Division II women's basketball championship teams at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly-Pomona), and worked her way up the ranks, from city recreation ball to NCAA Division I to summer pro men's league.

She credits her strong family background for giving her a start. "My friends say, 'Violet, you grew up in Compton, but your family was like Little House on the Prairie," she said, according to The daughter of James and Gussie Palmer, who have been married for more than 50 years, Palmer is one of four children. She held the point guard position at Compton High School, where she also played softball and ran track. She was captain for three years at Cal Poly-Pomona under the late coach Darlene May, and she helped the Broncos win national titles in 1985 and 1986. May also nurtured her interest in officiating.

Palmer briefly coached high school basketball but didn't like it. "Oh, my God, the kids needed so much attention," Palmer told Juarez. "I had migraines. I was just so tense and stressed out. I said, 'This ain't for me.'"

It took seven years, three fewer than the norm, for Palmer to get her first NBA assignment. By then she had a thick enough skin, a thorough grasp of the game and its rules, and enough experience at the lower levels. She took the floor with peers Bill Oakes and Mark Wunderlich on October 31, 1997—Halloween night—in Vancouver, British Columbia, as the Vancouver Grizzlies played host to the Dallas Mavericks. "I will never, ever forget the moment I put that jacket on and walked onto that floor," she said. "It was like, 'Wow, you're telling me I'm going to do this every single night!' It was more than nervous, I was going to pee in my pants."

"Her eyes were as big as saucers," Dallas player Michael Finley told Sports Illustrated, speaking about Palmer's first game. "I know she was as nervous as any of us players." Palmer was unwavering in her calls, and working as the "third official" took some of the pressure off. NBA vice president Rod Thorn after the game was praiseworthy. "She did her job, like the other two officials on the court," Thorn said. "The better she performs, the more anonymous she'll become."

Early in her career a player offered her a date if she changed a foul call against him, Palmer told "We can't go out on a date," she said. "And you still got the foul." Players and coaches stopped making sexist remarks, said Palmer, although fans were slower to accept her. Meanwhile, she earned the admiration of her co-workers and supervisors. "She is very well liked amongst the staff," said director of officials Ronnie Nunn, a former peer of Palmer, in Newsweek . "They don't have to circle the wagons around her, either. She stands on her own, which is beautiful."

Palmer has not hesitated to eject a player when the situation called for it. In January of 2004, she tossed guard Raja Bell of the Utah Jazz for punting the ball, football-style, after Palmer ruled that Bell had shot after the buzzer sounded to end the first quarter. And she made a habit of evaluating her own performances, as well. She and her fellow officials have reviewed their performances on film after each game. After each game and a quick snack, the trio of referees has watched the game video until about 1 a.m., "a brutal routine they repeat as many as 75 times a season," Juarez wrote.

Palmer, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, said the most difficult part of her job is traveling 23 days a month during the eight-month season. Her next goal? Some playoff assignments, she told Newsweek. "Then they're really going to go, 'Wow, she has arrived.'"



Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City, UT), January 23, 2004.

Ebony, February 1998.

Newsweek, March 8, 2004.

Sports Illustrated, November 10, 1997.


"Her Call,", (December 21, 2004).

"Ultra Violet,", (December 21, 2004).

—Paul Burton

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