Where’s the accountability in women’s officiating? Coaches want to know

Kellie Harper blinked back tears, swallowed the lump in her throat and took a deep breath.

“In these games, these teams are really good,” Harper said. “One mistake, one missed shot, one missed assignment at any point in the game can change it.” 

Harper, who was fired Monday by Tennessee, was talking after Tennessee’s 79-72 loss to third-seeded NC State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a game in which a critical call late might have impacted the outcome.

After Tennessee cut the deficit to four with 46 seconds to go, the Lady Vols pressed, and it looked like they stole the inbounds pass — until the whistle blew. Officials said before the inbound, NC State had called timeout. Harper was in disbelief.

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Was it a mistake by the officials? Harper wouldn’t go that far. But in a season that’s been rife with complaints from all corners of the country, it was the second time in as many weeks that officiating became a talking point late in a Tennessee game: In the SEC Tournament semifinals March 9, a missed travel call on South Carolina with 3.7 seconds to play eventually set up the Gamecocks to bank in a game-winning 3 at the buzzer. 

Harper, who won three titles as a player at Tennessee under legendary coach Pat Summitt, wasn’t fired last week because of officiating. But her point still stands: as women’s basketball explodes in popularity and administrators realize its power as a revenue-generator, pressure to win has ratcheted up. And that makes every call, especially in a close game, matter. 

For all the discourse around the varying issues in college sports — out-of-control, booster-led NIL collectives, a transfer portal that never stops churning and the looming reality of revenue sharing with athletes — coaches, administrators and even officials agree on one thing: The officiating in women’s basketball needs major work.

The NCAA declined to make Penny Davis, the head of women’s officiating, available to USA TODAY Sports. But others spoke about one of the game’s most problematic issues. 

“I think to the overall point as the game has gotten more spotlight and just more people purchasing tickets, watching on television, the fundamental question as administrators is, have we done enough to look at the officiating?” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told USA TODAY Sports. “And I think the answer is no.” 

‘The officiating needs to grow’

In conversations with more than 20 coaches, administrators and officials, both current and former, they say the issues are substantial and wide-ranging: confusing calls in the post, inconsistency from game to game — and sometimes quarter to quarter — misapplications of rules and a glaring lack of accountability. 

UCLA coach Cori Close was asked about the 37-17 disparity in free throw attempts that favored Southern California after her team lost 80-70 in double overtime to the Trojans in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.

“If our game is going to grow at a rate,” she said, “the officiating needs to grow at the same rate.” 

Walz explained it like this: Not that long ago, when parity was scarce in women’s hoops, a few bad calls at the end of the game might lead to the better team winning by 15 instead of 20. Now, bad calls can change the outcome. 

Women’s players today are bigger, stronger and faster. They sky for rebounds and blocks and occasionally get called for goal-tending. They finish tough shots through contact and talk trash after.

But there’s a double standard with who can yak and who can’t: In a December game at Virginia, two NC State players were hit with technicals after screaming “And one!” in celebration — even though neither were taunting opponents. ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli was beside herself. “What are we doing?!” Antonelli cried, obviously annoyed.

In contrast, when Stanford All-American Cameron Brink fouled out in the Cardinal’s second-round win over Iowa State, turned to the official and said “(expletive) you” as she walked to the bench — a clip that circulated widely on social media — she wasn’t penalized. 

Coaches take most issue with how fouls are called in the post — where players have gotten stronger and more physical. Inconsistency is a problem across the country, and was on full display during the NCAA Tournament. Players struggle to adjust.

In the first Elite Eight game, Oregon State-South Carolina, OSU’s All-American post player Raegan Beers picked up her third foul with 56 seconds to play in the first half when she and Sania Feagin got tangled going for a rebound. Both fell to the floor but the replay showed minimal, inadvertent contact. 

ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, a former All-American post, was outraged by the foul. And when the broadcast turned to longtime women’s official Lisa Mattingly, who now assigns games in the SEC, for an explanation, she couldn’t defend the call.

After OSU lost 70-58, Beavers coach Scott Rueck said, “we were walking on eggshells out there, playing in a china closet, trying to avoid that fourth or fifth foul. Because of that, you play a little tentative.”

Officiating snafus distracted from other games, too.

In Notre Dame’s Sweet 16 loss to Oregon State, Irish point guard Hannah Hidalgo, a first-team All-American, spent more than four minutes on the bench in the second quarter when officials told her she had to remove her diamond stud nose ring.

Hidalgo had played with the piercing all season, and told reporters afterward that the referees had told her she could play with it in against the Beavers as long as it was covered. But at the end of the first quarter, officials told her to take it out. She called the move ‘BS’ and said it disrupted her game.

In Raleigh, official Tommi Paris had to be subbed out at halftime of the NC State-Chattanooga game because of a ‘background conflict.’ Paris has a master’s degree from Chattanooga, and didn’t disclose it before the game.

Challenge of getting quality people in the officiating pool

Nearly everyone acknowledges that retention of good officials is a problem, too — one they’re not sure how to solve. 

From the league’s birth in 1996 to 2005, Val Ackerman served as president of the WNBA. As commissioner of the Big East since 2013, she has a unique view on the growth of the women’s game. 

“Over the last 10-15 years, the women’s game has gotten faster and more physical, which makes the officiating job, which is hard to begin with, even tougher,” Ackerman told USA TODAY Sports. “The game is just accelerating at such a pace, we have to make sure we’re getting quality people into the officiating pool.”

But getting people into that pool is challenging. Not many former players default to officiating, and those who do often give it up quickly, unwilling to put up with screaming parents and coaches who have become menacing and even violent at the pipeline entry point (which, in the beginning, also comes with poor pay). 

If officials stick with it and rise to the college and professional ranks, Ackerman said the NBA and WNBA add another hurdle. The NBA has told women’s officials if they want to work WNBA in the summer, they need to work NBA G League games in the winter. That means good officials are being pulled away from the college game. 

Pay is an issue, too: Some conferences pay men’s officials more, which can force women’s officials to pick up more games — like working four in five days — and can lead to some not being as sharp as they want. (In the NCAA Tournaments, men’s officials are paid the same as women’s officials.)

While salaries vary by factors including experience and division of play, those numbers are not readily available. According to a 2022 Associated Press story, 15 of the largest and most profitable conferences pay officials in the men’s game an average of 22% more than women’s officials. Ackerman told USA TODAY Sports that the Big East will pay its men’s and women’s officials the same starting next season, but wouldn’t disclose amounts.

In college, officials are independent contractors who are paid a game fee and must cover all their travel expenses. Conference supervisors assign games during the regular season; the NCAA and Davis don’t get involved until the tournament. Ackerman described it as a ‘fragmented’ system.

“We need to make sure that we continue to recruit and develop the next generation of officials,” Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president for women’s basketball, told USA TODAY Sports. “You have to make sure that, as our sport continues to elevate and grow, you’re also (growing) such an important part of the game, having officials there that will do the job and perform at the level we need them to perform.” 

One idea that’s been floated before is making officials NCAA employees. But that would require wholesale changes from NCAA leadership across sports, and most don’t think it’s realistic. 

The Power Four conferences ballooning to 16-18 teams, plus the collapse of the Pac-12, is cause for more headaches. 

“It’s gonna get complicated next year with these nationwide conferences, because one of the issues that hasn’t been discussed is, how is officiating going to work in those leagues?” Ackerman said. “They’re literally gonna be having referees ping-ponging across the country to work their games, which is going to add to wear and tear, which is ultimately going to affect the quality of work that they do.”

Concerns of accountability and transparency

Across the country, coaches told USA TODAY Sports that the single biggest problem in women’s basketball officiating is a lack of accountability and transparency.

“The game has come so far, it’s on the rise,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts. “I know officials work hard and try their best; I do, too. But I’m held accountable for my actions as a head coach, and it makes me better to have to take ownership. What recourse and accountability system is in place for officiating?

On January 12, Utah was trailing Stanford 65-64 with 55.8 seconds left. After a Stanford play broke down, the Cardinal called a timeout and Kiki Iriafen took a shot with 25 seconds left. The ball left her hand after the shot clock went off, but the whistle didn’t blow. Stanford grabbed an offensive board, and Utah was forced to foul. Utah lost 66-64.

Roberts was irate. She told USA TODAY Sports that shortly after the game, the Pac-12 admitted its officials had ‘missed a game-altering call.”  She asked them to put out a statement saying as much, but the conference refused.  

It was far from the only are-you-kidding-me? moment this season.

In February, Louisville was leading Syracuse, 72-71, with 2.3 seconds left when the Cardinals’ Olivia Cochran was whistled for an intentional foul against guard Dyaisha Fair. Cochran did foul on purpose in an effort to stop the play — Louisville only had two fouls and the Orange would not have shot free throws had it been a common foul — but officials ruled she hadn’t gone for the ball, and awarded Syracuse two shots. The Orange won 73-72. 

Incensed, Walz went off in postgame, describing it as, “a God-awful call. It’s absolutely terrible officiating. They should be embarrassed … somebody has to start holding the officials accountable.” 

The next day, Walz was fined $20,000. The ACC didn’t comment further, saying in a release it considered the matter closed. No one ever admitted publicly that officials shouldn’t have whistled it intentional. But the official who made that call, Carla Fountain, didn’t work another Louisville game. 

“There’s stuff that’s missed all the time, and I get that,” Walz told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t care about the 50-50 call, but I need the game to be administered correctly. And I’ve been saying since the 2018 Final Four, it’s interesting to me that my players have to come to a press conference and answer questions about missing shots, and coaches have to answer questions about decisions we made — why don’t officials have to answer questions ever? 

“If an official misses a call, what happens to them? We don’t know. Coaches have no idea. What we do know is we see them officiating another big game the next day on TV.”

After games, coaches are usually asked by conference supervisors to fill out an officials evaluation form. Numerous coaches who spoke to USA TODAY Sports said they haven’t filled out the postgame evaluation in years. 

“What’s the point?” one coach said. “It’s not like it changes anything.” 

Ways to improve officiating in women’s college basketball

But coaches do have ideas for how things could improve. 

One coach suggested a public, nationwide ranking system for all college officials. 

“No one wants to see their name at the bottom of a list,” said the coach, who requested anonymity because they feared potential retaliation. They pointed out that players and coaches “have a number beside our name every day” — so why shouldn’t officials?

Roberts had a suggestion other coaches agreed is worth exploring: give coaches one challenge per game, similar to college football. Lose it, and it costs you a timeout. Win the challenge and you retain the timeout. Holzman said she’s started to hear interest in exploring a challenge system.

“That’s something that could be a positive,” Harper said. “I don’t want to slow the game down, but in some of these tight games you want to make sure you get it right.’

Rule changes have been floated, too, particularly as it relates to physicality. 

Baylor coach Nicki Collen, who is on the NCAA rules committee, said the idea of six fouls has been discussed “but we have not made it to the point where we feel like that’s a productive thing” in the college ranks. 

“I think we’re trying to help officiating,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “But it’s a constant thing. Like, we think officiating is worse — but I think it’s just under a bigger microscope now. They’ve never been more critiqued, never had more film.”

Southern California coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who spent two years as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers, suggested a pool report for the last few minutes of the game like they do in the NBA. 

“I don’t think you can have them explain (40) minutes of calls, obviously,” Gottlieb said. “I think a pool report at the end would be neat … We just want the officiating to be at the level of game play.” 

The lack of transparency was never more apparent than March 10, in the SEC championship game between South Carolina and LSU. 

The game ended in a near-brawl with one player (South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso) ejected for fighting and five others (three from South Carolina, two from LSU) tossed for leaving the bench with 2:08 to play. South Carolina hung on for a 79-72 win. Immediately afterward, coaches Dawn Staley and Kim Mulkey answered questions about players losing their tempers. Within minutes of the final buzzer, Cardoso posted an apology on social media for violently shoving LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson to the floor.

But the three officials who worked the game — Pulani Spurlock-Welsh, Angelica Suffren and Kevin Pethtel — the ones who missed calls like LSU All-American Angel Reese grabbing a fistful of Cardoso’s hair and yanking, still haven’t talked. The SEC never issued a statement. 

For years, officials have been told they should be seen and not heard, strongly encouraged to keep quiet in public instead of admitting their faults. But in an era when player misdeeds run on social media loops and talking heads debate and dissect coaching mismanagement, staying silent may be causing more angst.

Said one coach who requested anonymity: “In this day and age, that is not a good enough answer.”

Email Lindsay Schnell at lschnell@usatoday.com and follow her on social media @Lindsay_Schnell

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