Why you should care

Because trailblazers like Nadine Crowley wear stripes too.

League of Their Own: An OZY Original Series on Executive Women of Color in Sports. League of Their Own: An OZY Original Series on Executive Women of Color in Sports.

Nadine Crowley had just finished refereeing the Women’s World Championship in Brazil. In front of a packed arena, she had officiated WNBA superstars Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird and Candace Parker. She was at the top of her game.

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Nadine Crowley soars to the basket during her playing days in 1990.

But the next weekend in the fall of 2006, as Crowley laced up her running shoes to referee a preteen boys’ basketball game in an empty high school gym in Ottawa, a coach approached her, looked her up and down, and asked who she was working with because it might be hard for her to keep up.

“People are always going to say stupid things to you,” Crowley says. “You walk on the court and everyone talks to the male ref, and the male ref could have just been starting out. But at a certain point, you just have to ignore it and continue proving yourself.”

Crowley, 54, has proved her ability to shape the game — on a global level, for both men and women — as one of a dozen International Basketball Federation (FIBA) referee instructors. She’s the first Black woman to achieve the milestone, after a career spent climbing the capricious, often frustrating ladder of big-time basketball officiating.

Mediation is like refereeing without a whistle.

Nadine Crowley

Crowley is one of two women in the select group, which is also called upon for opinions on rule changes (she’d like to see a little more clarity around double fouls), to train and evaluate international officials. There’s only one rung higher in global basketball officiating, and that’s instructing Olympics referees — a goal Crowley is hesitant to discuss, for fear of jinxing it.

Her biggest impact has come in changing the face of the much-criticized folks in stripes. “I hope I’ve shaped the idea that referees are referees … not females and males, just referees,” she says.

Crowley’s journey began long before she was born — when her father, Stanley, first picked up a whistle in 1945. He officiated university basketball while Nadine was growing up just outside Toronto in Mississauga. Stanley was inducted into the Ontario Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. Crowley and her 91-year-old father still watch games together and discuss the officiating.

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Crowley with her father, Stanley Crowley, who first started refereeing in 1945.

Crowley began her own refereeing career in college, at McMaster University in 1998, when she needed some extra money after she hung up her playing shoes. Within two years, she had gone from youth and club basketball to the Canadian national university championships to earning her FIBA card so that she could ref internationally. The tryout in Winnipeg, Manitoba, included tests on rules and techniques, an intense fitness test and reffing half a game with her every move evaluated. 

The metrics are subjective, but Crowley says her rise came with officiating loads of games and impressing the right higher-ups — enabling her to advance as high as working the world championships. Among the few other women in those circles was Chantal Julien, of France, the first woman to referee a men’s basketball game in the Olympics in 2004 and the first female FIBA instructor in 2010. Crowley and Julien officiated together several times. “The quality that Nadine and I have is: We know basketball; we were both players, we know the game,” says Julien.

Julien, who is in charge of all referees in France, implemented a program to encourage more French women to enter the profession. Crowley has brought the model to Canada, running all-female camps as a way to highlight rising talent.

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Crowley officiates the Canadian College Athletic Association Men’s National Final. Despite experience working at the game’s highest levels, she still gets disrespect from coaches.

But unlike Julien, Crowley has a full-time job too.

Crowley has owned a private social work practice since 2002, offering family services like counseling, mediation and “voice of the child” reports for court hearings — typically efforts to have a child weigh in on custody cases. “Mediation is like refereeing without a whistle,” she says: facilitating conversations and interactions, people yelling at you and at each other. But when it comes to social work, Crowley rarely sees the follow-up once each case is complete. She feels like she’s making a bigger difference in her side gig, by mentoring referees.

“She looks beyond herself, and I think that goes beyond her as an official; it’s the kind of person she is,” says Susan Blauch, a FIBA referee colleague who is head of WNBA referee performance and development. “When you think of her work as a social worker, she has a deep level of empathy and reads people well. I can’t think of anyone better who would be able to give young referees the guidance they need.” 

Blauch describes Crowley as “warm and funny,” while Julien describes her constant calm. That doesn’t mean Crowley isn’t sometimes boiling under the surface at what she faces on the road. “You still always get that crap, no matter what,” Crowley says. “When I travel as a Black woman, that’s a challenge in itself. I stick out like a sore thumb in Asia. Or when you travel to South America or wherever, there is sexism.”

And that’s on top of the demoralizing aspects of the job all referees face. When asked if she’s ever made a bad call or had fans yell at her, she bursts into laughter. “All the time,” she says. She’s had to apologize to coaches after reviewing game tape that revealed she blew a call. She’s had thousands of people boo her and hundreds yell in her face. She’s torn both ACLs. But most painful of all was not getting chosen to ref at the 2008 Olympics. “It took me a long time to deal with that,” Crowley says. “You don’t get a reason, and it really makes you sit back and think about why you’re doing this.” 

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Crowley with her wife, Michèle Labrosse. They have been together for 27 years.

Still, about four times a year, Crowley leaves her wife to hop on a plane to some far-off tournament. (She and Michèle Labrosse, an attorney, have been together for 27 years and met playing touch football.) Crowley arrives roughly a week early and holds a pre-competition clinic to teach skills, techniques, clock management, communication and more. During the tournaments, Crowley evaluates the referees at each game and then takes them back to the classroom to continue honing their skills — making sure fans notice the great basketball, not the men and women in stripes.

“Refereeing really doesn’t have to be different than real life,” she says. “Just be yourself, don’t try to emulate other refs, educate yourself on the fundamentals, work hard and be a good person on and off the court.” 

Read more: Double duty — a WNBA star turns to broadcasting. 

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