For the people who know Violet Palmer, they all say there’s one trait that sets her apart from others —her ability to out-work teammates and competitors alike.
As a teen growing up in Compton, she woke up before dawn to practice basketball. Her drive and determination to always be better brought her to Cal Poly Pomona to play starting point guard on a team that won back-to-back NCAA Division II championships in 1985 and 1986. In her professional career, she broke barriers and was the first woman to officiate an NBA game in October 1997.
Palmer (’88, recreation administration) reached the pinnacle of success in officiating and credits her time at Cal Poly Pomona with helping to make sure she was prepared for wherever her journey took her.
“Being on the Cal Poly Pomona team gave me confidence as a student-athlete,” Palmer said when she was honored as Distinguished Alumni in 2016, “while having the opportunity to learn discipline, work ethic, and sportsmanship.”
For her historic and far-reaching contributions to the game of basketball and her willingness to mentor and give back to the university, Palmer will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Commencement in May.
“Violet is so deserving of receiving this honorary doctorate recognition having reached the pinnacle of success in her work as a professional referee and first female to officiate games in professional sports in the National Basketball Association,” said Brian Swanson, the director of intercollegiate athletics at Cal Poly Pomona.
“Her on-going work and passion for mentoring and growing opportunities for the next generation of aspiring professionals is rooted in her work ethic and being true to her values. Her personal and professional pursuits led her to the highest level of her profession and was a model in crossing barriers and genders. Bronco Athletics is so proud to always have Violet on our team.”
The Cal Poly Pomona team that Palmer was a part of was coached by Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Darlene May. During Palmer’s years on the squad, the team’s overall record was 107-20, with a 45-2 record in the California Collegiate Athletic Association.
After college, Palmer went on to referee collegiate women’s basketball, the inaugural season of the WNBA in 1997 and more than 900 games in the NBA. Palmer retired from officiating in 2016. She is currently the coordinator of Women’s Basketball Officials for the Pac 12 Conference, the West Coast Conference (WCC), the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and the Big Sky Conference.
Fellow alumna Michelle McCoy met Palmer when they were high school basketball rivals and later teammates on the same Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) team. After high school, McCoy went to UCLA, and Palmer became a Bronco.
But McCoy (’91, hospitality management) decided to leave UCLA after a couple of years and was considering a transfer to Pomona, so she called up Palmer to talk about the move. Once she became a Bronco, the two championships would follow.
“Playing with Violet, oh my gosh, it was amazing,” said McCoy, who teaches hospitality, tourism and recreation at Cesar Chavez Continuation High School in Los Angeles. “She was one of hardest workers I have ever known. She was great on defense, a fierce competitor, and good at whatever she put her mind to. Violet was always thinking of how to make the team better.”
When she is not teaching, McCoy, a Los Angeles native and former referee, works with Palmer, who coordinates the assigning of women’s basketball officials and evaluates them for the Pac-12, West Coast and Western Athletic conferences. Palmer also runs a camp to help replenish officials.
“I’m not surprised at where she is now,” McCoy said. “She’s a great person. I really appreciate everything Violet has done for women’s athletics.”
Even with her hectic schedule, Palmer remains committed to Cal Poly Pomona, meeting with the women’s basketball team annually and donating to the program every year. The Cal Poly Pomona Alumni Association recognized her as a 2016 Distinguished Alumni, and she was inducted into the Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.
Danelle Bishop, who has been the Bronco women’s basketball coach for 12 years, said even when COVID-19 made in-person visits impossible, Palmer met on Zoom with the athletes.
Bishop said so many students and alumni are super excited for Palmer to get the honorary doctorate because of the kind of person she is off the court as much as on the court.
“She is humble,” Bishop said. “She is so down to earth. She makes you feel special when you talk to her. She makes you feel empowered. That’s what she does for our female athletes. They say, ‘Be all you can be.’ She is living it. She never quit and she never gave up.”