Sandhi Ortiz-Del Valle’s passion and ambition led her to a maximum-security prison in Rahway, New Jersey, back in 1989.
Her uniform, ironically, had stripes.
At that point in Ortiz-Del Valle’s officiating career, she was obsessively chasing basketball games wherever they were held, making foul and traveling calls for the release. The higher the level of competition, the more cathartic. The tougher the environment, the better it prepared her for a future in the NBA.
Back then, female referees were nonexistent in major sports leagues. The idea of a one officiating an NBA game was about as realistic then as a woman becoming head coach of the Dallas Cowboys would be today. If breaking down a barrier meant a path through the all-male state prison, at least there’d be good basketball to reward the perils posed by unpredictable inmates.
“I forgot I was a female when I decided to referee that game. Almost. To me, it was just another game. And like I said, the higher the competition, the better for me. It was better for me to do as many high-pressure and high-competitive games as possible,” says Ortiz-Del Valle, going back to that day. “For me, stepping on the court was a vacation from life. All I had to remember were the rules in the book and calling them at the proper time. I didn’t have to worry about paying the mortgage or what my kids were going to have for dinner or stuff like that. I didn’t even think of going there as a woman. I wanted to do it because I heard the games were good.”
Ortiz-Del Valle says she was indeed harassed by spectator inmates who called for her company. So both Ortiz-Del Valle and her male officiating partner tried to keep away from the sidelines and baselines, especially during timeouts. There was also a startling moment when hundreds of inmates crossed the court because, unbeknownst to Ortiz Del-Valle, the game overlapped with prison-wide recreation time.
But more than anything, she remembers that championship game at Rahway included two “highly-skilled players.” She also picked up on a unique dynamic that derived from participants who could have their basketball privileges snatched away by just a hint of disobedience.
“You could feel the tension,” says Ortiz-Del Valle, who grew up in Harlem. “It was great. I just loved refereeing.”
For another seven years, Ortiz-Del Valle continued pursuing her dream of officiating in the NBA, climbing the ranks until she smacked into the glass ceiling. Along the way, she became the first female to referee a men’s professional basketball game in 1991, doing it for the USBL. Her uniform and whistle from that game were sent to Springfield, Mass., home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and put on display.
“It was strange to see a woman reffing out there, at first, but she was so casual,” says Dr. Elnardo Webster, a former Knicks draft pick who played multiple Pro-Am and Jersey Shore League games refereed by Ortiz-Del Valle. “Her demeanor was so non-obtrusive, it was so non-confrontational, she was so matter-of-factly-about it, it didn’t really cause a stir.
“She was the perfect woman to break in. She would make the calls, and then you’d respect that. Just like the guy. And she was better than a lot of the guys.”
Still, after all that, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Sandhi Ortiz-Del Valle, and there are reasons the NBA likes it that way.
It’s been 20 years since a New York jury awarded Ortiz-Del Valle $7.85 million for her sex discrimination lawsuit against the NBA. She still can’t bare to watch an NBA game on TV.
“When my brothers come over and want to watch it, I say, ‘Not on my TV. You want to watch that, go home,’” says the 67-year-old.
The anger stems from a long and emotional battle with the league, reaching its pitched height during the Jordan years. As Ortiz-Del Valle argued in court, it wasn’t just that the NBA didn’t hire her. It’s that the men in charge never bothered to crack the door open. By the time she filed a lawsuit in 1996, Ortiz-Del Valle had spent nearly two decades working amateur games, the Pro-Am circuit, Rucker Park, the Jersey Shore League, the USBL and that prison in Rahway.
Willis Reed, the former Nets GM, scheduled Ortiz-Del Valle for preseason scrimmages for a few seasons in New Jersey, which overlapped with Drazen Petrovic’s short career. But in order to land a full-time NBA gig, Ortiz-Del Valle required an invite to the league’s annual summer training camp. From that program, a small group of officials was considered for a promotion to the big league. Despite her groundbreaking appearances in the USBL and persistent lobbying for an NBA job, Ortiz-Del Valle was never extended an invitation. She says attempts to contact former commissioner David Stern, former vice president of operations Rod Thorn, former supervisor of officials Darell Garretson, among others in the chain of command, went nowhere.
“It wasn’t about the wages she was being paid, it was about her dignity as a human being,” says Patricia Flannery, who was Ortiz-Del Valle’s attorney. “And she had every right to be considered and they never gave her a chance. It’s still infuriating to me.”
Flannery chokes up while detailing this battle. She says it was the biggest case of her career, and it became personal.
“I’m a person who always has to count the people in the room who look like me. And Sandhi is always a person who has to count the people in the room who look like her. And in different ways. Because I’m white, I only have to count the women in the room who look like me,” Flannery says. “But she’s Puerto Rican, and this is something we face every day in our lives – is being treated differently, being treated less than, because of our gender, because of our race. I’ve done a lot of discrimination cases. And I feel very passionate about it.
“That was an evil thing that they did.”
The jury, comprised of six men and two women, was so moved by Flannery’s arguments and evidence – which included a list of 10 men who’d been invited to the referee’s camp with qualifications less than Ortiz-Del Valle’s – it awarded nearly four times the amount requested in the lawsuit. However, the male judge, Sidney Stein, reduced the award by almost 80 percent – from $7.85 million to under $347,000. Following a motion by the NBA for a retrial – which was denied by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor – the case was settled out of court. Both parties agreed to keep the terms private.
“When this matter was litigated over 20 years ago, we did not agree with Ms. Ortiz-Del Valle’s claims or the jury’s award, which was subsequently overturned by the judge,” said an NBA spokesman.
Nonetheless, the case represented the first time a jury found the NBA guilty of employment discrimination. The league’s progressive image took a hit.
In that Manhattan court, with Thorn and Garretson among the league employees testifying, the NBA argued that Ortiz-Del Valle’s schedule was too soft. As Thorn says in a 1995 Sports Illustrated article, “We’ve made it our business to watch Ortiz-Del Valle, but her schedule is not very strong. You just don’t go from lower-level competition to super competition.” The league also asserted that Ortiz-Del Valle did not meet its fitness standards.
“Basically, they were saying she was too big, too fat,” says Flannery.
Garretson’s testimony, according to Flannery, was especially gruff and “probably helped convince the jury there was animus in this decision to overlook my client, that he did do this because he doesn’t like women very much.”
Garretson was the NBA’s supervisor of officials for 17 years until 1998. He died in 2008.
Aside from claiming that Ortiz-Del Valle was unqualified and overweight, the NBA set to prove it was not a discriminatory business. In doing so, the defense summoned two women to testify as to the NBA’s inclusiveness – Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner – who, in 1997, became the first females to officiate NBA regular-season games.
Palmer and Kantner declined to comment for this article, but the timing of their hiring – announced a day before the scheduled start of Ortiz-Del Valle’s trial (which was then delayed) – prompted skepticism about the league’s motives.
Flannery claims it was a stunt and that the jury believed her.
“It was very obvious to the jury that these women were hired so that they would be witnesses in the trial,” says Flannery.
Ortiz-Del Valle says she was “hurt” by the decisions of Kantner and Palmer to essentially testify against her. She has never spoken to either of them.
“I would never step on another woman to advance myself. It’s just something I wouldn’t do. I’d bring them with me,” she says.
There was some backlash to females officiating in the NBA, most notably from Charles Barkley, who declared during the 1997 preseason, “I don’t think women should be in the Army and I don’t think they should be NBA refs.” But, as Ortiz-Del Valle experienced in the lesser leagues, male players are typically accepting of female officials.
And there haven’t been many issues in the NBA, at least not publicly.
Kantner was fired after five seasons for “not making sufficient progress,” according to the league, but Palmer continued until her retirement in 2016. Her success became a symbol of progress, as numerous stories and an ESPN documentary were dedicated to her trailblazing efforts.
But if the NBA wanted to show that hiring two females was an earnest move toward gender equality, it hasn’t exactly followed through. From 1997 to 2018, the number of NBA female officials dropped from 2 to 1.
Currently, Lauren Holtkamp is the only female referee working in the NBA. Time, if anything, has only bolstered Ortiz-Del Valle’s argument.
“To me, it’s a bit embarrassing that we only have one working woman in our officiating ranks right now,” said commissioner Adam Silver recently at a press conference. “There is no physical reason why that’s the case. It’s just the way things have grown up in the league, but we’re determined to change that as quickly as possible.”
There are signs the NBA is incorporating more females into the pipeline, most noticeably at the Summer League two months ago when 19 of the 81 referees were women. That was a 280 percent increase from the year prior. With 21 female officials also working in the G League, it won’t be much longer before Holtkamp isn’t alone in the NBA anymore.
But nobody seems to have a good explanation as to why the number of NBA women officials dropped in the last 20 years, ever since a jury found the league guilty of employment discrimination against Ortiz-Del Valle.
One theory, as posited by Palmer in an interview with Bleacher Report recently, is that women would rather keep away from the grueling NBA schedule. She says refereeing NCAA women’s basketball is now lucrative and rewarding enough.
“You have to realize that the NCAA program right now has really grown and the money is really, really good and you have a lot of women … who don’t want to be NBA referees,” Palmer says. “They go, ‘Why would I go and have to work a longer season that’s grueling when I can stay and referee a league that I love being a part of?’ You can’t fault women for that.”
That certainly wasn’t Ortiz-Del Valle’s philosophy. When the NCAA told her that she could only do women’s games, Ortiz-Del Valle says she rejected the opportunity and continued to officiate the men’s leagues.
And after she fought the NBA for a chance, her life and career became a wave ride with hard crashes.
Following the announcement of her $7.85 million verdict, Ortiz-Del Valle was inundated with media requests and marriage proposals.
“Ten guys proposed in two weeks,” says Ortiz-Del Valle, who, in 1998, was listed by Sporting News as the 98th most powerful person in sports, right after Don King. “They came out of the woodwork.”
Ortiz-Del Valle never took those advances seriously, and the money the jury awarded never got past the judge. A single-mother with two daughters, she continued to work as the physical education teacher and boys’ basketball coach at Humanities High School in Manhattan.
But Ortiz-Del Valle’s officiating career was finished. She says the Jersey Shore League dropped her after the lawsuit was filed against the NBA, and other opportunities mysteriously disappeared. Ortiz-Del Valle then injured her back in a car accident in 1997, not long before the lawsuit verdict, and she never worked another game.
After spending most of her entire life around basketball – as a star player at City College and a trailblazing referee on the circuit – she felt like a pariah.
“It’s just ugly because the people who were friends who were trying to get into the NBA, all of a sudden, they were horrible to me,” says Ortiz-Del Valle.
Today, Ortiz-Del Valle is a dedicated grandmother in Hillside, N.J., a Newark suburb that lines Newark Airport. She moved there before the trial. The settlement money is gone and the NBA has never acknowledged any wrongdoing let alone discrimination.
In other words, 20 years later, not much has changed for Sandhi Ortiz-Del Valle. The scarcity of female referees remains an issue, perhaps more jarringly than ever. And whether it involves the NBA or one of its teams, there always seems to be a gender-related investigation or lawsuit in the news. Today, it’s the Mavericks and their alleged “corrosive culture towards women.” Seven years ago, a male former security director sued the NBA alleging he was fired for raising concerns of sexual harassment toward female colleagues. Prior to that, a jury awarded Anucha Browne Sanders $11.6 million in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Madison Square Garden.
Maybe that’s why Ortiz-Del Valle decided to tell her story again, as the #metoo movement continues to expose mistreatment of women in the workplace. Her case may be forgotten after all these years, but the struggle still resonates.
“My basic premise was this: If you get hurt and go to the emergency room, do you say give me the best male doctor or give me the best doctor? The best doctor,” she says. “That’s all I was saying. If I was better than this person, why are you choosing him over me?