No women are refereeing the Toronto Raptors finals. A look at females in male-dominated leagues

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As the Toronto Raptors get ready to face off the Oakland’s Golden State Warriors’ in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, fans may see a lot of women in the stands but none on the court.

There are currently three female referees in the NBA but not one is officiating the finals. However, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the number of female referees on the court could soon rise.

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long,” he said while speaking at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C. on May 9.

“Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing,” he said.

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Silver said he wants half of all new referees joining the league to be women and he would also like to see teams hire female coaches.

There has never been a female coach in the NBA, however, in 2014, Becky Hammon became the first woman to be hired as a full-time assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs.

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“The goal is going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league,” Silver said. “Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

Dawn Smyth with Canada Basketball said since Silver made the announcement, there’s been a noticeable change with the organization talking about gender diversity on the court.

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“It’s like a door has been lifted a little bit in this sport,” she said. “It does not have to do with gender — he wants to put the best referees out there.”

Smyth has coached both men and women’s university basketball, and she said there “was no difference,” in each role.

“The only difference now is that the men involved in the hiring process may be more open to hiring females,” she said.

The NBA has had female officials since 1997, and in December, the Indiana Pacers made history by hiring the first woman to hold the title of assistant general manager in the NBA.

In this Jan. 9. 2015, file photo, referee Lauren Holtkamp makes a call during an NBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic in Los Angeles.
In this Jan. 9. 2015, file photo, referee Lauren Holtkamp makes a call during an NBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File

“The NBA has always been a progressive company, as it’s a lot more accessible to all ages and incomes,” Ellen Hyslop, co-founder of the Gist, a sports outlet written by women for women, said.

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“We’re really excited to see what the commissioner is saying, as there’s no reason why there should not be more female coaches and refs in the NBA,” she said, adding that this should be practised in all professional sports.

So does the NBA’s gender diversity stack up with other professional leagues?


The NFL currently has one female official, Sarah Thomas. In January, Thomas became the first women to officiate an NFL playoff game. She also made NFL history in 2015 as the league’s first full-time female referee.

During the 2018-2019 NFL season, the league had 10 female coaches — three full-time and seven interns. That’s twice as many as in 2017.

And in March 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made history by becoming the first NFL team to add two full-time female coaches to their staff.

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There has never been a female referee in the NHL.

In 1995, Heather McDaniel made history when she became the first woman to officiate a men’s professional hockey game, working in the Central and West Coast hockey leagues.

Major League Baseball

There has never been a woman to umpire at the major-league level.

Bernice Gera was the first female umpire in professional baseball in 1972 after winning a sex discrimination lawsuit. However, she quit after her first game, citing a lack of co-operation from the other umpires.

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Only a handful of women have umpired the minor league baseball, with the most well-known being Pam Postema, who umpired for 13 years. She also officiated an MLB spring training game.

Manager Tommy Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers speaks with umpire Pam Postema during a Spring Training game in March 1989 in Vero Beach, Florida. Jim Commentucci/Getty Images

‘Stick to your own sport’

Although the number of women referees and coaches in professional sports is on the rise, the numbers are still low in the male-dominated industry.

“It can be intimidating from a coaching and reffing perspective,” Hyslop said. “There were a lot of haters and comments after the [NBA] commissioner made the statement,” she said, in reference to Silver’s comment that he wants 50 per cent of all new refs to be women. “Many were saying, ‘Stick to your own sport,'” she said.

“But this is ridiculous, as a majority of coaches in women’s sports are men. We are not telling men to stay in their own lane, but they are telling us to stay out of this,” she said.

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In 1997, the NBA hired two female referees, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer. But the move was met with scepticism by some players.

Charles Barkley, then a Houston Rocket, said at the time: “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.”

In 2015, Chris Paul, then playing for the Los Angeles Clippers, blasted referee Lauren Holtkamp for a call she made. After the game, Paul said to reporters, “This might not be for her.” He was fined $25,000 for the comment.

Another hurdle women may face in professional sports is the fact that by age 14, women drop out of sports at double the rate than their male counterparts, according to Hyslop. She said this could be due to social stigma or a lack of positive role models.

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READ MORE: Over half of Canadian girls notice gender discrimination in their pre-teen years

But organizations, like Canada Basketball, are hoping to close these barriers.

“There is a conscious effort to target young females to help them get training and experience so we can staff our national team with qualified females,” Smyth said.

“If you recruit females for coaching or officiating at 14, they have more of a chance of going into it.,” she said.

It’s also about the positive role models.

Hyslop said the female referees or assistant coaches heading into professional sports help break down the stigma and give young women a positive role model.

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“The Toronto Raptors also have a lot of women in the organization, which is great. Masai Ujiri [president of the team] hires for diversity. The Raptors are one of the NBA’s most progressive when it comes to hiring women,” Hyslop said.

Hyslop and Smyth both have high hopes for the future of gender diversity in professional sports, and see the NBA’s push to recruit more women as a huge step forward.

“In those positions, it’s about knowledge of the game and confidence in the calls — and that defies gender,” Hyslop said.

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