News & Politics

Just One Female NBA Referee Left

Dee Kantner's firing from the NBA is a prime example of how technical hiring changes are not sufficient to overcome decades of misogyny in sports.
On July 15, gender equality in sports took a small step backwards when the NBA announced the firing of Dee Kantner, one of only two female NBA referees.

"There are times when, based on performance, a referee doesn't make significant enough improvement," said Stu Jackson, NBA vice president of basketball operations, in announcing the decision.

Dee Kantner simply said, "It was not expected. I am very disappointed."

Undoubtedly, the NBA should be applauded for its willingness to have hired female referees. Kantner and Violet Palmer were hired in 1997 as the first female referees in a major U.S. professional sport, and they both served as members of the officiating staff through the 2001-02 season. But Kantner's firing is a prime example of how technical hiring changes are not sufficient to overcome decades of misogyny. While the NBA was willing to hire female referees (in what was also a savvy marketing move), there has not been the necessary cultural change in how the game and its referees are perceived by coaches and officials.

Jackson claimed that the decision was "strictly performance-based." The NBA undoubtedly can produce evidence that, according to its evaluation process, Kantner was near the bottom of the referee rankings. And that is the end of that.

Or is it? NBA referees are evaluated annually based on subjective observations by Jackson, other NBA officials, coaches, and general managers. And herein lines the problem: Kantner, and other female referees, are evaluated by cadres of men used to watching male referees. A number of factors may have contributed to Kantner's firing, but it is likely that she was being evaluated in a system that places a disproportionate value on aggressive, masculine refereeing. Small variations in her behavior, such as a quieter voice or smaller physical presence, may be seen as exhibiting a lack of confidence and authority in the eyes of NBA observers, 99 percent of whom have watched only other men their entire lives.

Underestimation of Kantner's ability would not necessarily be malicious. Powerful male players are used to male referees being equally tenacious. Even coaches who honestly try to make gender-blind evaluations are susceptible to unintentional bias due to their preconceived notions of what makes a good referee. Kantner was undoubtedly subject to increased scrutiny as a woman, and the NBA seems to have made no effort to consider whether its existing standards of "good" refereeing were gender-based.

The deeper problem is that a significant change such as this takes cultural adjustment, not just a change in cast. Kantner's firing (and the fact that no other female referees have been hired in the past five years) represents the ignorance of the dominant party, a pattern seen over and over again in many sectors of American society.

This is particularly obvious in our political system. Elected female politicians are common on both the state and federal level. But women who do succeed as political figures, Madeleine Albright being a notable example, are usually described as "tough" or as "fighters."

In other words, "masculine." Female political leaders wouldn't be caught dead without a power suit and a stern face. The more successfully a woman can emulate the masculine behavior of the men around her, the more respected she will be by her peers. The criticism of Jane Swift, who served as governor of Massachusetts during her pregnancy, showed how difficult it is for women to be women and still fill the masculine role of an authoritative leader. It is small wonder that this challenge is even more pronounced in a male-dominated, testosterone-pumping professional sport.

The challenge of achieving equality is the same for all traditionally underrepresented groups. In the 1950s and 1960s, even as black athletes made inroads in all major professional sports (save hockey), a number of coaches and players thought that black athletes should not compete. Their ability was constantly underestimated due to the pervasive racism of that era.

The famous victory by a Texas Western team with five black starters over an all-white Kentucky squad in the 1966 NCAA basketball championship was a landmark event in overcoming delusions of racial superiority. It took another 31 years before the first female referee stepped onto an NBA parquet.

Today's female athlete faces similar struggles. Though professional leagues exist for soccer and basketball, women are generally shrugged off as inferior athletes. Like it or not, the average obstinate male usually assumes that women are physically inferior until he actually has his butt kicked by one on the field.

Kantner's firing comes as somewhat of a surprise considering how quickly she shed the stigma of being "the female ref" and became just another superb referee. A 1999 Sports Illustrated article described her as "simply one of the crew" in just her second year on the job. In that article Chris Whitney, a Washington guard, said, "I think the referee does a good job when you don't notice they're out there, and we didn't notice her tonight."

None of this should detract from the significance of Kantner serving five years at the highest level of her chosen profession. She deserves congratulations on her work in the NBA, and on whatever she chooses to do next. But her firing is a reminder that substantial change in any field that had long excluded women requires major shifts in mentality, not just a few new faces.

Russell Menyhart is a law student and athlete in Bloomington, Indiana.
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