Sandra Ortiz-Del Valle is about as big a basketball fan as anyone’s likely to meet, as well as a champion of women’s rights. But last October, when people inside the sport and out celebrated the news that the National Basketball Association had hired Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer as its first two female referees, she didn’t consider it a victory for equality or the dawning of a new era in professional athletics. She considered it a cynical ploy to undercut her million-dollar gender-discrimination suit against the NBA, which declined to hire her as a ref despite her seventeen years of experience with other pro and semi-pro leagues and the numerous awards she has won. The case comes to trial March 30 in Manhattan’s U.S. Southern District Court.
The NBA won’t say much about why they didn’t hire her, or why they did hire Kantner and Palmer mere days before Ortiz-Del Valle’s case was originally scheduled to begin, but they dismiss the suggestion that the women are being used as pawns. “They met the standards,” says executive vice-president Jeff Mishkin, “and Sandra Ortiz-Del Valle did not.” Neither of the new hires will speak about the trial, for which they have both been listed as witnesses for the defense. But Ortiz-Del Valle, whose uniform hangs on permanent display at the Basketball Hall of Fame, says she can’t help feeling “as if I prepared this big meal, and Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer are feasting on it.”
Since she brought her suit, all her refereeing jobs with other leagues have mysteriously dried up, too. Nevertheless, she has rejected the NBA’s settlement offers (first $25,000, then $75,000) in favor of her day in court. A lawyer with knowledge of the case calls that a bad strategy – “Whatever damages she could get are, at best, kindly characterized as chump change,” he says – but her perseverance has won her the admiration of many female refs. “I think she’s put a charge of dynamite in that old-boy foundation,” says Yvonne Maxwell, a referee for 27 years.
Despite the praise, Ortiz-Del Valle is just trying to keep her eye on the ball. “I didn’t want to become a trailblazer,” she says. “I just want to be an NBA referee.”