The first female basketball official: Fans treated me like a mascot. They shouted: ‘Women belong in the kitchen!’.

Tenderness and freedom

‘Sędzia’ or ‘sędzina’? [Both mean ‘referee’, but ‘sędzia’ is masculine and a common word in Polish, whereas ‘sędzina’ is its feminine counterpart, only gaining popularity when used in this context for the sake of gender equality – all comments in brackets are translator’s notes.]

The chronic problem. Before games, basketball players would come up to me and ask, ‘How should we address you?’. ‘Pani sędzio’, I would reply. [‘Pani sędzio’ literally means ‘Ms Referee’; the strategy of adding ‘Ms’ to alter the gender of the title is often used in Polish to avoid neologisms.] ‘Sędzina’ was still associated mostly with a judge’s wife. [That is the primary meaning of ‘sędzina’; ‘sędzia’ means both ‘judge’ and ‘referee’.] Today, I prefer ‘sędzia’. According to Prof Miodek, a linguist, both forms are acceptable.

Nice of the players to ask your opinion.

I’m sure many of them wondered if I would manage. I was the youngest of all the referees. And I became the first woman in Poland who was to referee top men’s league matches. Back then, everywhere I looked, I saw men: among officials, basketball players, coaches, sports activists, fans. If they said something about my gender, I didn’t care. My thinking about basketball refereeing was simple: ‘Someone puts up a barrier in front of me? Then I have to break through it’.

Hold your horses, it’s not that easy.

If you have a passion, no one will stop you from pursuing it. I felt more and more confident with each match I officiated in their league. The higher the league, the more was going on on the court. Because the speed of play was higher and the players were better in terms of technique. But they were not the hardest to referee for me. Women’s matches – now that was a challenge. Their basketball proved to be more unpredictable. Eight out of ten players were emotional and impulsive on the court. In the case of men – three, tops. Women would always give their very best. Even in low-stakes games. They would also process failures harder and longer. Because men didn’t analyse things. They had only one goal – to win. If not this game, then the next one.

And when were you bitten by the basketball bug?

I’m from the generation of the basketball craze of the 90s. I watched American league games. Before each, Włodzimierz Szaranowicz would cry out: ‘Hey, hey, it’s the NBA!’. At the age of 13, I became fascinated with the Chicago Bulls’ flying Jordan and Pippen. Not only I knew them, but also other kids from my Warsaw neighbourhood. Of course, there were more boys than girls on the court. And they played better than us. But together with several other girls, we made a group of good friends. We watched rebroadcasts of games together as they only aired live at night. At the weekend, we would have a quick breakfast and meet at the court. Then lunch and back to basketball. We would throw into the side basket until the boys invited us to play with them. Until the end of elementary school, in gym class I would only play basketball with them. Back then, our height, weight and skills were still similar.

What attracted you to basketball?

The fact that it’s never boring. And sometimes I was bored with the mandatory sports: gymnastics, elastics, hopscotch or dodgeball. I needed a sport that was team-based, yet allowed me to showcase my individual skills. Basketball was a perfect fit. I liked that it was so complicated. In order to play football, all I needed to know was what offsides is. Volleyball? Two touches and a whack on the third! Basketball had a lot of rules. For example concerning the time limits for completing an action, the movement with the ball, or the fact that in defence you can’t touch your opponent with both hands or block them with your body because it’s a foul. This sport was not just about throwing a ball into a basket for me.

I wanted to go higher than streetball. My family couldn’t really help me because they weren’t into sports. But they didn’t say, ‘Child, forget it. Look at your battered knees and dislocated fingers’. My parents provided me with a ball and shoes, and the rest was up to me. When I was 15, I used to go to practice at the Warsaw University of Physical Education and come back by bus at 10 p.m. The girls and I made a rather random team. It fell apart pretty quickly. So I played my first games when I was in high school. It fielded its team in inter‑school competitions. That was also when I had my first contact with referees.

Were there female referees too?

No. At the time, women had only one job – that of a table official. They would write reports and keep control of the game and shot clocks. And that’s what I used to do when I wasn’t playing.

After graduation I wouldn’t have been able to play for my school team any more. There was an amateur league, but what of it? No women’s teams played in it. Fortunately, I came into contact with a fellow referee who officiated matches in school competitions. He suggested that I do an officiating course.

At the first stage, I learned the theory. I quickly became interested in it. The best moment, though, was when I was first handed the whistle and told to referee a sparring match. That was it!

Did other women train with you?

Yes, but they chose to take only the table official exam. I, on the other hand, dared to take up the challenge and the role of a court official.


To practice this profession, you must have courage and confidence. On the court, you are constantly being judged and put under pressure. By basketball players, their coaches, but also by supporters. You will not be good if you become their enemy or if you fear them. You have to be able to talk to them. You need charisma for them to have confidence in your good decisions. And as for the training itself – the exam was a bit like a driving test. First theory, then practice. I got my licence. I knew I still had a long way to go. After all, it’s usually not like you become a good driver the minute you pass the test, let alone a rally driver.

Now, we are nearing a certain stereotype.

Of women behind the wheel? Well. A lot of men think that women tend to falter when they’re driving. That they turn on the left indicator and go right.

Did people perceive you that way as an official?

the beginning, there were no such comments. It might have been because I couldn’t referee in adult games right away. I had to go through certain stages, and the first one was children. I would always work with more experienced officials. Only then did I move on to junior, cadet, youth and amateur leagues. And that’s where I heard the first comments about my gender.

For example, I went to a high school game. The janitor led me to the PE teacher’s room, where I heard, ‘Can I help you with something?’ ‘I came to officiate’. ‘You what?!’. ‘You have a choice: me or no one’. I suppose the PE teacher was fooled by my sex and appearance: I’m 5'3 and I’m petite.

During the game, I had no problems officiating or controlling the players. After the game, the PE teacher came up to me and summed it up, ‘Gee, wow’. And soon enough, he was an official too. We’re friends to this day.

So when did you start whistling in Poland’s top leagues?

After a few years of work in the Mazowieckie district. I was given the opportunity to take part in training at the central level. It placed far more emphasis on the quality of decisions and individual refereeing techniques. And it lasted all season. I completed it in 2003. It was a huge boost. But also a lot of pressure, because I started to officiate matches all over the country. I knew, of course, that because of my gender I would be met with... raised eyebrows.

That must be an understatement.

When I stepped in among the 6'5 tall strappers, the fans treated me like a mascot. Some of them shouted from the stands: ‘Oh God, a bint!’, ‘Women belong in the kitchen!’.

This ‘bint’ motivated me even more. I wanted to prove something to men.

What was that?

That my skills and expertise are sufficient.

That’s hardly fair.

But that’s the way the world is. The more women in an industry, the less stereotypes about them. To overcome them, however, many of us need not only relentlessness, but also support. And I got it from my parents, my friends, the officials from Warsaw.

And how did the players react to you?

‘Wow, a woman! I’ve never seen you before’, I heard at first. And that was it. Basketball players from such high leagues are professionals. All that matters to them is good refereeing. To me, too. Only a few have offended me. But I tried to understand their behaviour: basketball is emotional, sports‑related anger is part of it. It was worse when a player or a coach couldn’t handle having a female referee. And those are feelings that go beyond sports.

Have there been any like that?

Not many. They said unprintable things. And I always wondered what they would say to their daughter if a man prevented her from working in her dream profession.

You may have paved the way for their daughter as a future official.

It’s not just me. The EuroLeague – the best league on our continent – has 70 male and two female referees. And in the top Polish women’s league, there are eight female officials and 43 male ones. Not many, but eight is better than one. The trend is changing. When I entered the central level, there were only five of us, with one in the top women’s league. In 2006, I became the first woman to be promoted to the top men’s league. After one of the games the lead official said to me, ‘Women shouldn’t officiate. But I’d rather work with you than some of my colleagues’.

I was confused. At first, I felt offended. But then I thought that few men would be able to speak so honestly. In a way, he praised and appreciated my work.

And what happens when you make a mistake on the court?

I do sometimes make wrong decisions like any referee. Basketball is an unpredictable sport, you can’t learn it by heart. Sometimes two thousand fans disagree with my decision. Such a reaction motivates me to concentrate even more. Because focusing on the mistake doesn’t help. It distracts and puts you off your stride. Unfortunately, my mistakes and those of my female colleagues are remembered longer than those made by men.

One of them happened to me in 2013, during a first league game. And in a crucial phase of the tournament. One team just launched a counterattack. This action could have given them a win. But I stopped the game because of the clock that was reset incorrectly. This prevented the team from scoring easy points, they lost. I digested this mistake for several days, dissecting it to avoid a similar situation in the future. I heard, ‘A guy wouldn’t have made such a mistake’.

Interestingly, two months ago I met a player whose team lost that match. He saw the clock situation completely differently than I did. In addition, he only remembered one refereeing error from his entire career. But the most important thing is that we could talk about it calmly over coffee. And this was a player who loves to debate with referees.

Many basketball players taunt each other on the court. This is known as trash talk. Do they use it towards officials too?

Of course. But I use it too. Some players think they can say something to me and I will keep quiet. That’s not going to happen! After my comeback the trash talk ends immediately. Basketball players appreciate the kind of behaviour that defines our relationship.

So you’re feisty.

I am. And it helps me a lot in my job. Because a referee should show some attitude and be able to defend their opinion. But they should also always demonstrate class. I remember a junior match I refereed in the district league. The coach of one of the teams did not accept the result. After the game, he stormed into the referee’s locker room and blurted out, ‘I fucking hate women refereeing!’. I threw him out. He left calmly and we finished the formalities of the competition. And you can imagine his surprise when we saw each other again a week later. This time, at a game in a higher league. He was the head coach assistant and I – the head referee. During the warm-up, I came up to say hello to the coaches of both teams as usual. We shook hands, exchanged smiles. The assistant who had a problem with female referees the week before saw this. He immediately came up to me and said, ‘I wanted to apologise for my behaviour. I hope you don’t hold a grudge.’.

Really? Of course, his behaviour did not affect my decisions during that game, but it showed that regardless of the world view, we should respect each other. And maybe it’s time to finally make peace with women in sports, politics and senior positions? Fortunately, in my community, most men have got used to women a long time ago. It’s nice when you step out on the court and the coach you’re saying hello to says, ‘Ms Kamińska, nice. Good refereeing it is, then!’.

Are there any games where all the officials are female?

More and more often. And they remind me of a picture that an airline posted on the Internet. It showed the entire flight crew. But it wasn’t a male pilot followed by stewardesses. This time, the crew consisted solely of women. A nice variation.

Global trends show that more and more girls are choosing to work as a referee, coach or club manager. Last season, two of our top women’s league teams were led by women. On European and American courts, it is slightly more common.

You contribute to this yourself – you organise training for referees.

When I first started, I didn’t have a lot of female colleagues to share experiences with. That’s how I came up with ‘Work Together’. These are three‑day camps. Their participants are female basketball referees. During class, we motivate each other, improve our skills, and analyse course materials. We conduct theoretical classes, but we also referee matches. This is my idea for empowering female colleagues who are at the beginning of their journey.


Karina Kamińska – referee of the Polish Basketball Association. She was the first woman in Poland to referee in the top men’s league. Originator and facilitator of ‘Work Together’ training camps for female officials.

Author: Łukasz Pilip

Photo: Grzegorz Jędrzejewski

The text was published in „Wolna Sobota” a magazine of „Gazeta Wyborcza” on 28 May 2022