Home / A Referee Pursues Her Calling in the Men’s Game

A Referee Pursues Her Calling in the Men’s Game

COMPTON, Calif. — There are nearly 900 officials working in the top tier of men’s college basketball, keeping order at thousands of games. They wear black-and-white striped shirts and try to keep a low profile.

Last season, only one of them was a woman. Her name is Crystal Hogan, and when she sat down in February to talk about it, about the lonely and perplexing ratio of being 1 out of 900 in N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball, she was coolly diplomatic, as a good official should be.

“I can’t answer that,” she said. “I’m just happy for the opportunity.”

Hogan, 43, is glad to know that the number of women officiating top men’s college games has doubled this season with the addition of Amy Bonner. “I hope there’s more coming,” Hogan said last week.

In an era in which women are breaking into jobs traditionally held by men across the sports world — there are female assistant coaches in the N.B.A. and the N.F.L., for example, and last month Kim Ng became the first female general manager in Major League Baseball, with the Miami Marlins — men’s college sports, generally, have been slower to adapt.

For female basketball referees, men’s college basketball may be the bleakest of frontiers. In the N.B.A., four of the 70 full-time officials last season were women, the league said. In its developmental G League, 25 of 63 were women — a ratio similar to that of the W.N.B.A., where 11 of 27 referees in 2020 were women.

In college basketball, there are about 500 women officiating in Division I over all; all but Hogan and Bonner work in the women’s game.

The N.C.A.A. does not track how many women have ever worked Division I men’s games, but it might be counted on one hand. Only one, Melanie Davis, has officiated in the N.C.A.A. tournament, at a first-round game in 2002.

That was the year that Hogan began officiating. She was raised in Compton, mostly by her late grandmother, whose name is tattooed on Hogan’s wrist. She played many sports as a girl, but not much basketball until high school. She took to it quickly and earned her way to Compton College, a community college coached at the time by a former N.B.A. player, Louie Nelson, and became a leading scorer.

“Now that I look back, I never paid attention to the referees — never,” Hogan said. She laughed. “Maybe because I didn’t play defense, I don’t know.”

She was recruited to Long Beach State. Her playing career was disappointing, she said, but she earned degrees in psychology and criminal justice, leading to a job as a social worker in Los Angeles.

Part of Hogan’s job was accompanying police officers on raids and searches, figuring out the care and placement for any children swept up. She soon realized that she liked the law enforcement aspect, too.

She now works as a parole agent for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, overseeing about 40 cases, people who have served time for violent crimes. She visits them once or twice a month, occasionally arresting those who violate their parole.

“You have to know your surroundings, trust your training,” Hogan said, and there are times when she might be talking about either of her professions, or both. “But you know what? I’m from the city of Compton. I’ve seen quite a bit. I’ve heard quite a bit. But when you deal with people with respect, and show them respect, you get respect back.”

In 2002, a friend asked if Hogan would be interested in officiating, as a way to earn money and stay connected to basketball. In the scrambled hours between a full-time job and raising a daughter as a single mother, she went through the training and worked high school girls’ games, because that was where schedulers nudged her.

Her first game was with a heavyset partner who did not want to rotate into the prescribed officiating positions on the floor, as Hogan had trained to do, and who scolded her when she called a foul late in a blowout game.

“He yelled at me from way in the backcourt, ‘That’s not a foul!’” Hogan said. “I couldn’t believe it. In front of everybody. After that, I was so discombobulated. I was so embarrassed.”

She soon hardened from criticism (“I’ve learned to ignore things — nothing really bothers me anymore,” she said) and moved up to junior college women’s basketball.

She spent summers watching the Drew League, rooted not far from home, featuring street ball legends and pro players. In 2007 or 2008, she said, organizers pulled her onto the floor to officiate, calling games featuring the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

A highlight remains calling a foul on Kobe Bryant. Her phone holds a photograph of her officiating with a serious expression while Bryant smirks beside her.

About that time, Hogan said, she was approached by a men’s college basketball officiating coordinator.

“He says, ‘If you were a guy, I’d hire you today,’” Hogan recalled. She took it as a compliment. Back then, Hogan said, she had never heard of women officiating top-level men’s college games.

Over the next decade, she moved on to the N.B.A.’s development league and Division I women’s basketball, a résumé not unlike that of Bonner, a veteran of the W.N.B.A., the G League and international basketball. She was working the Drew League when she caught the attention of the veteran N.C.A.A. men’s official Donnie Nunez, who mentioned her to Bobby Dibler, the men’s officiating coordinator for six major conferences. Hogan was invited to a camp for officials in Las Vegas that took place during a major A.A.U. tournament.

“You don’t know when or where it’s going to happen, but you always end up in a game that’s extremely difficult or challenging to officiate,” Dibler said. “That’s where officials, unbeknownst to them, have a chance to shine — or, maybe, not shine so well.”

Dibler was in the stands when Hogan restored order to an unruly contest, keeping her wits and doling out technical fouls in the right places. Dibler was impressed. He asked his top officials: Would you work with her? Yes, they all said.

Verne Harris, a Division I official who also supervises referees in the Division II Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, offered Hogan a job. She took it, thinking she had just swapped women’s Division I basketball for the chance to referee men’s Division II games.

Within weeks, though, came a call from Dibler. Hogan remembers precisely when it was — Aug. 15, 2018, at 1:02 p.m., as she drove east on the 91 Freeway, not far from where she grew up in Compton. “I mean, I could have been anywhere,” she said.

Dibler offered more than she dreamed: a spot working the Pac-12, Mountain West, Big West, Big Sky, West Coast and Western Athletic conferences.

“I almost had an accident,” Hogan said. “The magnitude of that — I knew it would be life-changing.”

Hogan spent the past two seasons proving herself in nonconference games, filling out her late-season schedule in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and in junior college games around California.

This season, Hogan will work major-college conference games in the West. “She’s earned that,” Dibler said.

While the N.C.A.A. has a Title IX mandate for gender balance among college athletes, there is no such initiative when it comes to officials. Disparities can be found in plenty of other places in college sports, like administration (where only a few of the 65 athletic directors in top conferences are women) and coaching (where, for example, every Division I national champion in women’s volleyball has been coached by a man).

J.D. Collins, the N.C.A.A.’s coordinator of officials for men’s basketball, said that he did not know many women striving to officiate men’s basketball, given that pay is roughly the same in women’s basketball and the pressure there is often less intense. The few women who have gone on to the N.B.A. have mostly come through the ranks of women’s basketball.

“I don’t think there is any opposition to it on the men’s side,” Collins said. “But it also requires a desire to come to the men’s side.”

Penny Davis, a longtime W.N.B.A. and women’s college basketball referee who oversees women’s officiating for the N.C.A.A., said she knew of only a couple of women with keen interest in working on the men’s side of college basketball. The style of play and the schedules are different enough that referees cannot easily bounce between the two.

“These young females, they just want to work,” Davis said. “And a lot of men’s Division I collegiate conferences are really top-heavy with veterans, and it’s hard for them to crack into that.”

Still, the number of women officiating women’s games is rising. Violet Palmer, considered a pioneer for being the first woman (along with Dee Kantner) to officiate in the N.B.A., in 1997, is the coordinator of women’s basketball officials for the Pac-12, Big West and Western Athletic conferences.

A decade ago, she said, about 30 percent of her officials were women. Now it is about 60 percent.

“We’ve taken giant leaps forward, which is amazing,” Palmer said. “Some of us are die-hard women’s basketball fans. We want to promote our game. We want young girls to see women working women’s games.”

Plenty want to see them working men’s games, too. When Bonner officiated a nonconference men’s game at Dayton last week, the Atlantic 10 Conference heralded it as a first for the league.

Hogan’s appearances are rarely noted. On a weeknight in February when she refereed a men’s game at Compton College, where she had played more than 20 years before, there were about 30 people in the gym.

During a dead ball, Hogan sidled up to a talkative player in need of a lesson in sportsmanship. One outburst later, she gave him a technical foul.

The player slunk away, lesson learned. His coach nodded, knowing it was the right call.

Hogan kept the game moving, just trying to make it fair for everyone else.

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