Violet Palmer. Blake Bolden. Karen Daniel. Three Black women with unique stories on how they blazed their respective trails in sports. The Los Angeles Sparks earlier this year brought these three trailblazers together on a Zoom panel discussion.
“It’s a really tough business. We’re 50% right, 50% wrong, even when we’re 100% right,” said Palmer, the NBA’s first Black female referee. She was one of two females who graduated from the league’s officials training program and was assigned to the league officials in 1997. She worked until retiring in 2016 at age 52 due to knee problems.
“I fell in love” with hockey, said Bolden, the first Black female drafted in the NWHL, now Premier Hockey Federation. She is now the NHL’s first Black female scout.
Her grandfather taught her baseball when she was six years old, recalled Daniel, who became the MLB’s first Black female owner when she joined the Kansas City Royals ownership group in 2020.
Now retired, Palmer first became an official after a college basketball career. “There was no WNBA. At the time I would have to go overseas and try to play [pro] basketball, which I really didn’t want to do. I had to get out into the real world, find a job,” she admitted.
Officiating became her second option if she wanted to stay in the game. “I’m a basketball junkie. I put that striped shirt on and everything changed for me.” After working high school games, Palmer eventually moved on to college—she worked four Women’s Final Fours before the NBA came calling.
“I didn’t know if the NBA was going to hire me or not,” said Palmer, who in 2006 became the first female official to work a league postseason game. “I love it. I just loved it.”
The Cleveland-born Bolden started playing hockey as a grade-schooler and played college hockey at Boston College where she was an All-American and played in three Frozen Fours. She also played for Team USA and on a Canadian Women’s Hockey League championship team before she was drafted by the then-NWHL. She was a two-time league all-star and played in Switzerland (2018) before she retired as a player in 2019.
Bolden said being the first and sometimes the only Black is an honor. Of her current job: “I’ve prepared myself to be in this position.”
“I was born and raised [in Kansas City] and spent a good bit of my life there,” noted Daniel. She worked in corporate America, which she called a “very male-dominated” world, for over a decade as an accountant. “In the early ‘90s, I decided that I wanted to broaden my career and be a business person,” so she moved to a large construction firm. “I worked there for 26 years, 18 of which I was the chief financial officer, and eventually became a member of the board and division president.”
After retiring from business, Daniel was asked by the Royals’ new owners to join the group. “It really increases my opportunity to impact the community and my focus being on underrepresented, underserved communities,” she said.
All three Black women are proud of their accomplishments of breaking barriers and crashing ceilings, but they remain fully aware that there are others who look like them who also deserve the opportunity.
“You just have to have your own intestinal fortitude and know that you’re qualified. You know that you’ve worked hard. You know that you deserve to be there,” advised Palmer.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.