The Los Angeles area needs a few good women to fill the shortage of female high school basketball referees. The part-time job pays $35 a game and a go-getter can work two and sometimes three games a night. Applicants must possess physical stamina, a knowledge of the game and the strength of character to endure harassment from coaches at point-blank range.
That's what happened recently to a female referee named Diana, who doesn't want her real name used because "I don't want to get in trouble." A first-year official, she was working a junior varsity girls' game with a male partner. The rest of the world couldn't have cared less about the game's outcome, but the coach of the losing team and his assistant acted as if they'd been given the death penalty for jaywalking.
Immediately after the game, the coaches raced over to Diana, who was getting her coat at the scorer's table. One of them--she's not sure who because she was trying to duck away--viciously berated her, "screaming, and I mean screaming, right in my ear," blaming her for his team's 20-point loss. When she walked away, the coaches began following at her heels, continuing to shout until Diana's partner stepped in and stopped them.
As a woman, Diana says, she feels violated by the incident. "It was easier for them to do it to a woman," she says. "They could have done it to my partner but they didn't." Then she adds, "There was a time in my life I would have cried over something like that, but I've toughened up a lot."
Diana wants to drop the issue--it's hard enough for a woman to survive in the male-dominated field without making enemies--but her partner felt angry enough to write a letter to Dean Crowley, the Southern Section administrator who handles officiating. The intensity of what the partner described as intimidation--"verbal abuse that left her physically threatened"--disturbed Crowley, but he wasn't surprised that an official would be harassed at a prep game.
In Orange County, where Crowley works, coaches and fans have practically declared an open-season on officials. At a game in Fullerton this season, a man came down on the floor after the game and hit an official with a forearm, Crowley says. When the school principal tried to bar the man from attending games, he was told, on advice of counsel, Crowley says, that it's probably not lawful to keep a citizen out of the gym, even a citizen with a propensity for physical violence toward people in striped shirts.
"Officials--men or women--are subjected to much more abuse than ever," Crowley says. "A lot of them are asking, 'Why am I doing this for $35 a game?' As a result, there's a crisis in officiating. We're not seeing the quality we used to get."
Prep basketball officiating has never been a woman's field, even after the rise of girls basketball in the late '70s nearly doubled the openings for officials. Today in the metropolitan area, out of hundreds of officials who are certified by the state to officiate boys' and girls' games, only a few are women.
But not only are women staying away in droves, they're also leaving officiating. "A number of women have dropped out because of stress and the emotional strain of harassment," Crowley says.
Women also believe there is a male bias against them. To become a certified official, one needs to join one of the half-dozen certified associations in the L.A. area--all of them under the jurisdiction of the Southern Section--and do entry-level work at recreational leagues and freshman games. In about two years, if all the reports and rating cards are good, an official moves up to varsity games.
But, "it's an old boy's system," says Roz Goldenberg, head varsity coach at Oakwood High and a former junior college and prep official. "I found a lot of prejudice in the associations when I officiated. I just didn't get the good games. That's why I eventually left."
Of the 180 officials certified to do varsity games for L. A. city schools, about 15 are women. The San Fernando Valley association supplies 125 officials, including five women, to an area that stretches from Brentwood to Glendale. In the Channel Coast Officials Assn., eight of 133 officials are women.
The associations say they want to recruit women. "We haven't done it in the past, but we're going to try to encourage them to join our association," says Ed Baker, who assigns officials in the Valley area.
Ivie Lewis, an official for 17 years, doesn't believe the associations are committed to bringing women into the game. "I used to go to executive council meetings and ask the question, 'How many women do you have?' " she says before answering her own question: "Maybe one, out of all these former girl players who've come out of school in the past 10 years. The associations just don't recruit women."
In the '70s, when boys' basketball was practically the only game in town, Lewis was the only woman in the state to officiate boys' games. During the '80s at city schools, a few other women besides Lewis were assigned to boys games. But this season in the city, only men officiate the boys. In the Valley area, two women, Cathi Cornell and Linda Wilcox, work boys' games; in the Channel Coast association, there are none.
"Some women want to work boys games and some women don't," says Lewis, who retired as a city Department of Recreation and Parks senior director in 1984 but still officiates a full slate of girls' basketball. "The thing is, women are not given the opportunity."
But the general feeling among coaches and association officials is that women don't have the right stuff to do boys' games, especially high-level boys' games. Even at her peak, Lewis mostly worked 3-A boys' games.
"Women are fine when the pace is slow and there's not a lot of pressure, but I think the boys' game is a little too quick for them," says a boys varsity coach who doesn't want to be identified.
"Generally, the women don't understand what goes on in the paint and they have trouble anticipating what's going to happen next."
But Oakwood's Goldenberg counters, "I definitely disagree. It comes down to hustle and desire. And female officials do that. They can officiate boys games. No doubt about it."
Cornell officiated the Oakwood-Avalon High 2-A boys' game at the North Hollywood recreation center recently. Cornell and her partner, Mike Wagner, controlled a game that at times threatened to get out of hand because of the rivalry between the teams. "She did a good job," Goldenberg says. "She obviously has a strong background in basketball."
Cornell, 25, a physical education instructor at Pacoima McClay Junior High and an assistant girls basketball coach at College of the Canyons, played on the varsity at Canoga Park High and at Pierce College. Now in her fourth year of officiating, she does boys and girls games, preferring the boys "because their game is much cleaner and faster and they do less complaining." The girls, she says, generally play as if "they're in the Jump Ball Traveling League."
Cornell has been verbally abused by male coaches--"they get on me like they do any ref," she says--and male fans often tease her, "but nothing too crude," she says. "I kind of tune it out."
She dismisses the notion that women can't work boys games. "I think I move a lot better than most of the men out there," Cornell says. "There's no reason I shouldn't. I play the game, I coach the game, and I stay in shape so I don't make a fool of myself. Nobody wants to see a fat woman in polyester."
With a French braid flying behind her at the North Hollywood center, Cornell, who used to practice her mechanics in front of a mirror, blew an emphatic whistle and hustled on the transition, beating the ball to the base line. When a skirmish broke out among Oakwood and Avalon players, she didn't hesitate to get involved and sort out the perpetrators.
"She's not soft because she's a girl and she doesn't take any flack because she's a girl," Wagner says. "She'll call a 'T' (technical foul) if she has to."
In December, Cornell and Wilcox worked together during a boys' junior varsity game at the L.A. Baptist Christmas tournament. It's believed they were the first female duo to officiate a boys game in the state.
"We walked in the door and everybody thought we were there for a girls' game," Cornell says. "We really turned a few heads."
Whether they turn the tide for female officials remains to be seen.